How long is a chapter?

When you think of a chapter, you think of a book, maybe a textbook, where there is a clear division between segments with a new title and number for each of them. But the question is, if you’re writing, how do you know where to make that division?

The easy answer is when you’re changing topics. For a book, there’s a logical transition through the plot. If you were on a mission to buy a grape, maybe the first chapter would be finding your keys, the second chapter would be starting the car, the third of calling a friend to drive you instead because your car wouldn’t stop…get the idea? Each chapter will have its own miniature plot, where you have a purpose that slowly builds up to the climax and reverses back to the resolution.

The long answer? There’s so many reasons! In the case of James Patterson, he’ll have chapters that are literally pages long. If you look in Maximum Ride, there are some chapters that only last a single page. What’s the point?

Marketing. Shorter pages means a quicker read. For people that measure their books by chapters, readers will feel more accomplished finishing a chapter rather than saying they finished a page.

But there’s more reasons than this. I’ll try to outline some reasons below:

  • Show developments within the plot
  • Change POV
  • Enhance dramatic effect

I would recommend sifting through some comments here. One person, Rob Bignell Editor, presented some good arguments, which I borrowed for my bullet-ed list above.

Other reasons appear when arguing different chapter lengths, outlined below:

Short Chapters Long Chapters
– Short attention spans

– Quicker paced stories

– Simple Plots

– Slower paced stories

– Complicated Plots

The main idea, which AJ Humpage does a wonderful job summarizing, is you cannot “pick a number like 80,000 and then divide it by 30 chapters to give you 2500 words a chapter (average).” Books’ chapter lengths vary. She wrote, “If you have ever read Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ or many Stephen King novels, then you’ll realise that a chapter can be a sentence long.  Or just one word.  Or it can be 5000 words.  Again, like novel length, chapter length is dictated by what is happening in the story, not by the law of averages and applied mathematics.”

As Brian A. Klems wrote, “When you find those “commercial breaks,” end your chapter and start a new one.”

PS. Keep in mind that not all books have chapters, although it’s most common that they do.