There are many ways to use chapters effectively in your writing, just make sure your design is never random.
Chapters form an integral structural feature of books. Chapters enclose units of meaning. How much attention do you pay to their design? Do you lean towards shorter or longer? Do you pen one or more scenes in a single chapter? Do you wrap up with juicy cliff-hangers? Do you exploit chapter breaks to jump in time and space or alternate between points of view or storylines?
How long should a chapter be?
Chapters help authors dole a story in tasty chunks. Each story will naturally have its own brand of chaptering.
It’s helpful to think of chapters as a form of punctuation. The end of a chapter is like a period that is football-sized. Chapter breaks let readers take stock, reflect, or anticipate a big reveal. Packaging your content is about deciding how often to interrupt the flow, wrap things up, and signal big things to come.
There are no right or wrong answers about how long a chapter should be, but there are norms. Here are the average word counts for three famous YA series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 4,560 words per chapter; Twilight, 4,580 words per chapter; The Hunger Games, 3,700 words per chapter. This gives you a good idea of what’s in these bestsellers — chapters clock in around the 4,000-word mark, give or take a few paragraphs.
This post on Reedsy offers a long list of average chapter lengths and suggests a shorter and larger range is perfectly fine.
From these numbers, we can establish some guidelines: the average word count of a chapter typically falls somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 words, with 3,000-4,000 being the most common sweet spot.
Of course, even though this suggests general boundaries for chapter sizes, there are plenty of famous exceptions.
What should a chapter contain?
A chapter should be crafted like a mini-story. Chapters cycle through starts, middles, and ends. Each phase feels different, this helps stop readers getting bored of too much of any one thing, no matter how good.
The beginning must be strong, as strong as the opening of your book, ideally. Nail a super opening sentence and you’ll be off to a great start.
Chapter breaks are often called for by a jump in time or place. You should deliver orientation details. Who is there? Where are they? Why? What are the consequences of moving? What happened in any gaps that transpired?
Chapter middles are where the problems grow into a thicket. If you set up a great conflict in the opening, you should have no trouble. The middle is the bridge to the ending.
Chapter endings deliver a climax. They both resolve chapter-level conflicts and stoke the reader’s curiosity about what will come next.
The space between chapters is an extremely special piece of story anatomy. Make it a pause in the action for the reader — but also make her keen to continue.
The optimal size of any chapter is wrought of the balance between how long you can hold the reader’s attention without a pause and how briefly you can treat a topic without doing an unsatisfactory job.
How you organize and name your chapters should be dictated by the needs of the story. Many authors name chapters after the character in the spotlight. Many thrillers, or any book where the passing of time is a crucial part of the story, add time and place. Often, just numbers are enough.
Sometimes you may choose a chapter structure that heightens the symbolism of the story. For example, the book Eat Love Pray has 108 “tales” to reflect the 108 beads in a Japa Mala, the necklace worn around the neck of Buddhists in India to stay focused during meditation. The 108 tales are divided into the three sections of 36 chapters, just like the prayer beads.
Getting it right for your story
How are you making the most imaginative and informative use of your chapters? How do the features — from titles to optional section breaks to lengths — help guide the reader through the story?
Have you looked at your structure in-depth? Do the beginnings and endings of all your chapters have a similar style or is the variation among them a strength?
What’s the pattern of chapter sizes? If you haven’t already, take a look at the individual word counts of all your chapters. How do they compare across the span of the story? Do you have a lot of variation? Do form and function dovetail throughout your book?
When you discover the flow that fits the ups, downs, and turnarounds of your plot and cast perfectly, you have mastered your chapter structure.
Dawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book, Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.
Don’t Get Caught Up In The “Cult of the First Sentence”
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
The Three-act Structure: Formulaic or Foundational?
The Isolated Sentence Test
Does Your Writing Pass The “Slow Read” Test?