In the months leading up to and just after I’d started my first novel, I read everything I could about writing. I read all the books, all the blogs, and did all the research. I learned to “show and not tell.” I learned not to “head hop” (switch character point-of-view mid scene). I learned appropriate word count by genre. I researched character development, goal/motivation/conflict, and was told a million times that adverbs were the devil and had no place in my writing.
But when I finally sat down and got started writing, fumbling my way along, I realized that all my sources had left out a very important piece of information:
How long should chapters be?
It seems like a little thing, and one that perhaps shouldn’t matter.
Except if you’ve never written before, and have no idea what your’e doing, all of a sudden it does matter. Should it be 500 words? 10,000 words? You have no point of reference and it can be genuinely confusing!
After you get those first wobbly sentences done, those first shaky pages complete, you feel like maybe you’re coming up on the end of the scene, but is it too short? You have no idea! Will publishers laugh at you when they see it, will it be obvious that you’re a newbie? Or maybe it’s the opposite. You feel like your chapter has been going on forever, and you have no idea of “professional” authors would have split it into two chapters by now.
And then what happens if your chapter lengths vary? In those early days, I also spent a lot of time agonizing over whether all my chapters in the novel were all supposed to be the same length. Was it okay that one was 3,500 words, but the next was only 2,000? Did I need to trim the first one? Expand the last one? I had no idea, and there were no sources out there to guide me.
Does any of this sound familiar? In case you’re a new-ish writer and have arrived her because you’ve been googling “how long should chapters be,” I’m here to share my learning from writing 30+ books, most of those published via “The Big Five” New York publishers …
It doesn’t matter how long your chapters are.
Only once in all thirty of those books have I even had an even editor mention chapter length. It went like this:
Editor: Chapter Twenty-Eight feels a little short — do you want to expand it, or merge it with the preceding scene?”
Me: Hmm, no, I kind of like it how it is. I think padding it with extra words or merging it with another chapter will lessen the emotional impact.
Editor: Okay, sounds good!
That was it. The one and only time chapter length’s been mentioned in 5+ years of being published.
But you don’t trust me that your chapters are okay, do you?
You want to know how long chapters actually are?
Almost all of my chapters end up in the 2,000-4,000 range, with most probably coming in closer to the 2,000 range, but there plenty in the 3,000 range, a couple per book that tip the 4k, word mark, and even a couple that are in the 1,500 word range.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m pretty sure my chapter lengths are on the shorter end. I do have one author friend whose chapter lengths are similar to mine, or a little bit shorter, but most authors I know tend to have longer chapters than me.
And it used to freak me out. I’d think there was something wrong with the book or the chapter (or me!) But I’ve since learned to trust the rhythm. If a scene comes in below 2,000, I know to give it an extra look because I know that sometimes when I’m under the 2k mark, I’ve left out some description or character introspection.
Other times though, the chapter simply is just … short. And I let it be short. It’s just how I write.
So how do I decide when to end a chapter? You’re going to hate this answer, but I just sort of know. I never know the word count of a particular chapter until I’ve finished writing it. After my couple books, after I’d gained some confidence, I never again stopped to wonder about chapter length as I was writing. Wordcount doesn’t even remotely come into play while I’m writing. In other words, I don’t stop mid chapter, and think, “should the chapter end here? 1,000 words ago? Is this one too long? Too short?”
I just write until it feels like the chapter should end.
This could be because I write my books in scenes, where I write little mini stories, where I’m really focused on that particualr scene as its own entitty, and less in terms of its part in the large manuscript (that’s what I use revisions for). In other words, each chapter I write is like a little movie scene in my head. Whatever happens in that scene, I write it down as I see it. And when the scene ends, the chapter ends. And that works for me.
That’s just me though. I know a lot of published authors who sit down and write an entire draft without any chapter breaks. They just write and write, and write until it’s done, and then they go back through, and while editing, figure out where to insert the breaks. And that works for them.
And then I know a bunch of other published authors who determine their chapter by wordcount. They set out to write twenty-five chapters at 5,000 words each. When they hit 5,000 words (ish), it’s time for a new chapter. And that works for them.
In other words, there’s no right way to do it, so if you’re looking for someone to tell you how long your chapters should be, and how to know when to end them, you won’t find that advice here.
The advice I will give:
Trust yourself to know when the story ends, and worry less about what is proper and correct and expected and normal.
Don’t forget that writing is an art, and that you are an artist, which means you get to call the shots. You get to do whatever you want, and it will be right because it’s your story.