How Long Should a Chapter Be?

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Half of art is knowing when to stop — Arthur William Radford

By PJ Parrish

This must be the week for throwing out lifesavers. Sunday, James wrote about hearing from a former student who needed help getting over his writing paralysis. Good post for all of us, so click here to read it.

Yesterday, I got an email from a participant who took the two-day fiction-writing workshop Kelly and I gave last summer at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, MI. This woman was our best student and her sample chapters showed real promise. She absorbed stuff like a little sea sponge, took criticism like a pro, and was eager to get back to work on her story. But then came her email. Here is her nut graph:

This is probably a dumb question but I can’t find the answer anywhere and I am really worried that I am letting it get to me and prevent me from moving forward. My question is: How long should chapters be?

I started to write her back then realized this is one of those “dumb” questions that isn’t really that dumb. So I am writing to her via our group here at TKZ. Because I know you guys will help me give her a good answer. So…

Q: How long should chapters be?
A: As long as they need to be.

{{{Well, hell, that’s a big help, Sen-Sen breath.}}}
Patience, grasshopper.

Okay, here’s the facile technical answer, according to what I found through a quick Google of writer’s sites: The average word count for a novel is about 4,000 words. For genre fiction, it tends to be about 2,500 and shorter for YA. (The thought being, apparently, that young folks have short attention spans or fall asleep easily. But that didn’t seem to deter JK Rowling.)

This word count thing, as we all know, is about as helpful as advising an aspiring novelist to start at the beginning and keep going until the end. But the email from my workshop friend did get me thinking about the structure of chapters, and how often, when I read a manuscript, I see the writer struggling to figure out how and when to bring a chapter to a graceful, logical and satisfying end.

So I’m going to turn the question around a bit and focus on a different question I often ask of writers, be they raw beginners or even my seasoned critique group buddies:

What is the purpose of this chapter or scene?

I think sometimes we all can lose sight of this important question. As we write, we often charge through scene after scene propelled by raw passion, or a desperate desire to get it all down before it disappears, or grim determination to make a self-imposed daily word quota. In that mad rush, we can lose the focus of what the chapter should be trying to accomplish. You’ve heard this advice, I’m sure:

Make your writing muscular.

Now, that refers to all the usual stuff about using sturdy verbs, active voice, lean evocative description etc. But I think it also means that we should strive to make each scene, and by extension each chapter, work hard to propel the story forward. Maybe I can explain by showing you how Kelly and I approach this. We’re sort of pantsers in outliner’s clothing. We Skype every couple days and talk out where the book is going next. We can see about five or six chapters ahead at a time. We then write out a rough template of those chapters/scenes and what we hope to accomplish in each one. Here’s the actual template for our WIP Louis Kincaid book. Skim as needed:

CHAPTER ONE – Date?
Boys in box. Two unnamed terrified boys are fleeing someone in the dark and hide in a closet. No suggestion of place or date.

CHAPTER TWO – day 1 Saturday April 6:
Louis arrives at church and talks briefly with Steele. Intro Steele as main character. Brief Louis backstory reference on why he is here.

CHAPTER THREE – day 2:
Louis finds new apartment and unpacks his mementos. Insert thoughts about daughter and Joe. Phone call from Joe maybe? Very brief backstory reference to what happened in DOW with Steele. Stress that Louis feels really good about wearing a badge again after wandering so long in PI wilderness. (Set up for Steele show-down later).

CHAPTER FOUR – day 3 Monday morning April 8
Back at remodeled church. Team members show up. Brief info about structure of this State police task force. Steele gives intros and they take their cases. Louis chooses Boys in the Box case.

CHAPTER FIVE – day 3 late night
Emily comes and they go to dinner at bar and talk. Character enhancement scene and intro Emily with bit of FBI backstory. Set up hint that something is troubling Emily (later will reveal suicide of parents, which is why she balks at her assigned case later in book).

CHAPTER SIX – day 4
The meeting in the choir loft. As Louis is packing up file and getting read to leave, he can’t resist asking Steele why? Backstory on what exactly happened in Loon Lake 5 year ago (in L’s thoughts) and what changed Steele’s mind about Louis. Est. tension with Steele.

CHAPTER SEVEN – day 4 later
Louis makes long drive to Upper Peninsula. Heavy description to est mood and sense of remoteness. Meets Sheriff Nurmi. He is invalid but sharp as a tack. They discuss the cold case about boys in box.

Scene break or new chapter?
Louis goes to evidence room and examines the box. Sees marks on inside lid and realizes boys tried to claw way out.

Scene break or new chapter?
Louis goes to local cemetery to see boys graves but can’t find them. More talk with Sheriff Nurmi about what happened to the boys remains. Nurmi suggests he talk to old Rev. Gandy who presided over boys memorial service.

CHAPTER EIGHT or NINE?? Late that day.
Louis checks into the local inn. Reviews case file of boys in his room. Heavy case info scene. Est time line clearly over last 20 yrs of cold case. L Goes to dinner, talks to locals but no one remembers the boys from 20-odd years ago. He drinks too much, falls asleep and has a bad nightmare (IT ECHOES THE OPENING CHAPTER BUT ONLY OBLIQUELY.) Wakes up in a sweat and goes for a scary night run on the Lake Mich. Shore. Feeling of extreme disquiet.

NEXT CHAPTER – early next morning.
Louis goes to visit the abandoned copper mine where the boys in the boy were found. Build Creepy atmosphere. He finds the Catholic medal but it’s too old so he doesn’t know what it is. Other mementoes found? Goes to see Rev. Gandy?

When we do these quick sketch templates, we are hyper-aware of the need to make each chapter “muscular,” to make it work in hard-harness to pull the plot along. But it’s not just about plot here. We also look for secondary purposes, like opportunities to inject spurts of backstory (and thus avoid one giant info-dump) or to illuminate characters or their motives.
Also, by articulating the main focus and the secondary purposes of each chapter BEFORE we start writing, we are positioning ourselves to be able to better recognize a logical place to END each chapter instead of just allowing the chapter to peter out through pure exhaustion or inertia. Which brings me to my next point:

Every chapter should have its own dramatic arc.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about how your entire story have a dramatic arc. But I think it’s helpful to think of each scene/chapter having its own mini-arc. Think, before you write, about what you need to accomplish in each chapter and focus your output to that end. Of course you will veer off on digressions and detours and deadends – that’s why they call it creative writing! But if you have defined the central focus of each chapter beforehand, you will be less tempted to fill the screen with mere typing.

I suspect you will find that each mini-arc has its own natural little conclusion. Think of the end of each chapter as a sort of pause, almost like you are taking a breath before moving on. That’s what you are asking the reader to do if you are breaking your chapters at the right moments. You are sending a subtle signal to the reader: Okay, I’m going to give you a second to catch your breath here. Ready? Now turn that page and let’s move on…
One great thing about crime fiction, propelled as it is by the needs of strong plot, is that it tends to give us plenty of obvious places to end chapters. Here are a couple:

  • A significant shift in time or place.
  • A change in point of view.
  • A new plan of action. You show cops outside planning and preparing to go rescue a hostage. Stop there, then open next chapter with the action itself.
  • Introduction of a new twist or information. Say your hero has just learned about a huge new clue. Stop there, then build a bridge to the next chapter. In our last book, Heart of Ice, Louis finds forensic evidence that tells him he has the wrong suspect. It’s a devastating twist that sends the plot careering off in a new direction, so we end with Louis’s partner saying, “Now what?” And Louis says, “We start over. And this time we don’t make any assumptions.” The next chapter opens with Louis back at the murder site, reassessing the evidence.
  • The classic cliffhanger. In Heart of Ice, Louis chases a black hat out onto frozen Lake Huron. Here are the last lines of the chapter:

A loud crack, like a rifle shot.
Louis froze. Afraid to look down, afraid to even take a breath.
Another crack.
The world dropped.

Good storytelling is musical. It has pacing and rhythm, and no two writers have the same rhythmic style. If you are doing a good job of identifying the mini-arcs in your chapters, your readers will start to get a feel for your rhythm and will begin to even anticipate it. Which is partly what successful pacing is about: Your reader moving in sync to your writerly rhythms.

So should all your chapters be about the same length? Hard to say. I like a certain consistency when I read and when I write. My chapters tend to run about 2500 words. But when I am nearing the end of the story or in the middle of an action sequence, the chapters tend to get shorter. And sometimes, it just feels right to throw a really short chapter in there to shake things up. Stephen King has a chapter in Misery that’s one word: “Rinse.” And William Faulkner had this classic in  As I Lay Dying: “My mother is a fish.” I mean, what can you say after that?  So go short if you need to. Vary your rhythm like a scatting Ella. But make it all work as a whole, with purpose, passion and music. Which always comes down to…

Get me rewrite, baby.

Don’t sweat chapter numbering in your first draft. Strive instead for that mini-arc structure and you’ll find, when you go back in the hard light of rewrite time that the story has its own pacing. You might find you need to merge two chapters that feel anemic, or that you need to break up two that feel bloated or aren’t organically connected. In rewrite, you can go back and really listen hard for that natural intake of reader-breath, that pause. Which leads me to the perfect ending…

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

32 thoughts on “How Long Should a Chapter Be?

  1. Great post!

    The structural questions I always ask myself about each scene:

    1. Does it have an arc, a beginning, middle and end?
    2. Is the opening a hook?
    3. Are there enough obstacles?
    4. Can I begin it later?
    5. Can I end it sooner?
    6. What ‘fluff’ can I remove?
    7. Does it end with a bang?

    Questions 4 and 5 I learned from a screenwriter.

    The above questions have nothing to do with the actual writing, e.g., clarity, the five senses, characterization, conflict, etc. I have a separate checklist for those.

    As for creating cliffhangers, i.e., cutting a scene in two just so the reader will turn the page? I was taught that this is a cheap trick even though you’ll see it sometimes in traditionally published fiction, especially genre fiction, but I still dislike it (personal opinion!) Of course, TV scripts cut scenes in two all the time, but TV viewers have all sorts of distractions, especially commercials and other stations.

    I think when you’ve written enough scenes, you can ‘feel’ when a scene is structured well. I still use my questions to make sure, but I don’t revise or make the words pretty until I’m happy with the scene’s overall structure.

    I have a difficult time understanding those writers who don’t realize that structure is the foundation of narrative drive. Yes, characterization is also key but without an appropriate structure, even wonderful characters won’t keep most readers interested.

    • Hey Sheryl,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. Re your comment about cliffhangers being cheap tricks: I don’t disagree. I had another paragraph addressing exactly that but the post was getting long so I trimmed it. But what I wanted to add about cliffhangers is that they are a special device that should be used VERY sparingly. If you use a true cliffhanger too often in the same book, the impact is deflated, the surprise effect is diminished. I think it’s similar to what Elmore Leonard — or was it Vonnegutt? — said about adverbs….you are allowed one per book.

      And your list of do’s is worth a post in itself!

  2. Informative workshop, Kris. Posts like yours is why so many folks keep coming back to TKZ. One of the things my co-writer and I are sometimes guilty of is ending a chapter too late in our first draft. Taking it one or two lines too many. Sometimes chopping off that last sentence or paragraph, which is usually what the next chapter should start with, is enough to create much more suspense than leaving it there.

    • Yup…knowing when to leave the party is important. I have the same problem, Joe. Kelly is always loping off the last couple lines of my chapters. But then again, I tend to ADD a couple lines sometimes to hers.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about this, Kris. Patterson really has ripped to shreds the whole notion of long chapters. When you read a Patterson you discover that what would have traditionally been one chapter of about 2000 words has been chopped up into four chapters of 500 words, giving the feeling of momentum. Sheesh, like that will attract readers! (BTW, I love cliffhangers. The more the merrier).

    I’ve largely stopped writing in chapters. Instead I write in scenes. All three of my Ty Buchanan legal thrillers are like that. The scenes are numbered, but some are only a couple hundred words. Others a grand. I find this more cinematic and freeing. I actually got the idea from the novels of Andrew Vachss. No chapters, no numbers, just a scene, then white space, then a drop cap or capitalized first few words to begin the next scene.

    I don’t see the need for more than that. Even in electronic editions. I mean, who is going to go to the TOC of a Patterson and say, “Oh yes, I’d like to read Chapter 45 again”?

    So the idea of chapters may be a relic of the past. Write the best scene you can, cut out the flab, then write the next scene.

    • “So the idea of chapters may be a relic of the past. Write the best scene you can, cut out the flab, then write the next scene.”

      Yes. Yes. and yes.
      I think this is VERY good advice for folks struggling with or overthinking the chapter break thing. Write a well-structured series of scenes then you can always go back on tack on the formality of chapter numbers. I’m old fashioned…I like chapter numbers as a reader. I am one of those readers who, lying in bed, sometimes skims ahead to see where the next number is so I can figure out if I can make it there without falling asleep. Sort of like highway signs telling me GAS FIVE MILES AHEAD.

    • Jim,
      I also just realized this is one reason I don’t really like reading via a Kindle unless I have to, ie on long vacation. There are no page numbers…just that annoying percentage bar thing crawling across the screen.

  4. I wrote the manuscript I’m working on in scenes, wondering if I would publish it with what would look like over 70 ‘chapters’, but then, being lazy and thinking about the formatting issues with a couple of channels where chapter headings often have to be re-entered manually because their conversion software picks up the breaks, but not the numbers, I combined scenes into the more ‘conventional’ 2 POV scenes/chapter for romantic suspense.

    I wrote my first novel with no chapter breaks, then went back and added them. Of course, knowing nothing about the craft at that point, I ended every one with either someone going to bed or driving away. Yawn. But it did teach me that by backing up 3 or 4 paragraphs, I’d find the ‘right’ place to end a chapter or scene.

    One dreaded comment in my crit group is “not a page turner” at the end of a scene submitted for critique. It doesn’t need to be a cliff hanger. A question, either from a character or a line that has the reader asking himself what will happen next can get that page turned. In fact, I might have ended the chapter in Kris’s example with “Now what?” rather than having it answered. But then, she’s PJ Parrish/2, and I’m not.

    • Terry, this line cracked me up,: “I ended every one with either someone going to bed or driving away. Yawn.”

      We’ve all done that. I just finished a chapter that ends with Louis sitting in a diner asking for the check. I know it’s bad. But I am working hard on not being perfect in the first draft so I just left it. But I put it in red so I know I have to go fix it at some point.

  5. I was once told that newbie writers should make their chapters of similar length, until readers got to know them. I actually went back and made sure that all of the chapters in my first manuscript had a similar length. Do you think that advice is valid, Kris?

    • Hmmm…well, to me, that sounds like one of those “rules” that mean well but really makes no sense. Like I said in my post, I think readers respond to your style after a while and part of style is your pacing. But I think that is reserved for the point in your career when you have a base of loyal readers who have set expectations. Like James Patterson readers, as Jim points out. They have been trained to expect chapters that can be read — to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s writer character in The Big Chill — in the time it takes to go to the bathroom.

      I say this rule should be ignored. Any one else want to weigh in?

      • A chapter should be as long a cat’s tail — as long as it needs to be, which you started your article with. Since I give my crit group a word count for each scene (or chapter) I sub, I’m aware of how long they are. Sometimes, I’m writing and it seems that I’m ‘done’ after only 3 pages instead of a more typical 5. I’ll look at my plot points, and if I’ve covered everything, and have a hook at the end, then that’s going to be a short chapter. Likewise, some don’t seem to want to end, but as long as what I’m saying isn’t blathering (you may have noticed that’s a tendency of mine), then I have a long chapter.
        Right now, a new member of our crit group seems to critique by the ‘rule book’ and she’s jumping on every use of what she calls passive verbs. As if she read a rule that said “don’t use ‘to be’ verbs” and feels obligated to follow it. Rules are guidelines.

  6. Another good post, Kris, and words I need to read as I struggle to finish my next novel. Thanks for the much-needed refresher course. Off to put some muscle in my next chapter.

  7. Pingback: Pantsing and Chapters | Tricia Mingerink

  8. Interesting topic. I tend to bounce around on chapter length. My current work has some at 400 words and a couple at 4,000. The shorter chapters were bouncing POV after a longer dramatic scene between the two. It sped things up, added a bit of uncertainty to the future, and allowed for a ton of deep POV.

    I have a tendency to end chapters well before I thought I would when I envisioned them. Not sure why, except I write by ‘feel’ and when the boys in the basement put down the tools and head out for a beer, I can either force it (bad idea!) or start the next chapter (since the boys are invariably considerate and leave me a rough plan on what’s coming next.)

    Really like the way you rough sketch the chapters. I do something similar but the structure is different and I don’t include the timeline. Think I’ll borrow yours and see where it leads.

    • Paul,
      We started the timeline thing many books ago because we were losing our way in the “calendar” of the plot’s events. We would get to say, chapter 15, and Kelly and I would be asking ourselves: What day is this? How much time has passed since he got that autopsy report? When was the body found again? So much LOST TIME going back and reading what we had written to find out where the heck we were.

      Also, I think keeping a running time line helps you plot better. For example:

      Chap 1: PI meets client, gets the case and starts investigating.
      Chap 2: He gets some evidence.
      Chap 3: Four days later, a new body turns up.

      Problem: He is a hired PI working a big case. What did he do betweeen day 1 and day 5 — shine his shoes, go fishing, have a lost weekend at the local bar? You have to adhere to a certain realism in your plot time progression.

      We also keep what we call a running CHRONOLOGY. Every time we finish a chapter to fair satisfaction, we record the salient plot events, what day it is in calendar time (Friday, Feb. 4, 1998) and what day it is in plot advancement time (Day 4). This makes rewriting so much easier cuz you can immediately search for things that need fixing.

  9. I’m less analytical when I write. My chapters tend to be 10 – 15 pages long. I end them each with a hook of some sort. Guess I tend to think more about scenes and what needs to be accomplished in each one than the entire chapter. A pet peeve of mine are chapters that are a few pages long. It’s manipulative so the reader will keep turning pages, and that works well in a thriller with multiple viewpoints. But for the types of books I read, it annoys me.

    • I’m with you, Nancy, on the short chapter thing. It feels forced and pushy usually. And it usually tells me the writer doesn’t know how to naturally pace a narrative and must depend on gnat-brain-attention-spans to propel you thru the story.

      Ditto for writers (and their publishers) who inflate the type size and margins to trick readers into thinking they are getting a more substantial story.

  10. Great post, Kris.

    Lots of useful information.

    Couple of things I would add – pacing and importance of content. I once heard a writing coach point out that it was not fair to the reader to spend a lot of words on an unimportant character or clue, in other words, if the clue or secondary character is more important, they deserve more detail. And pacing can affect the length of the chapters, if they have a chapter arc.

    Jim mentioned Patterson’s brief chapters that are meant to keep the reader turning pages. I feel breathless when I read them. I don’t feel like I learn anything about the characters as they go whizzing by.

    That’s one of the things about the Louis Kincaid series that I was impressed with – character development. Not to much, not to little, just right.

    Thanks for a great post!

  11. I love this “dumb-not-so-dumb” question because of the can of worms it opens. Also love Jim’s response about writing scenes instead of chapters, then figuring out the best chapterization strategy from there.

    One of my favorite William Goldman-isms (he has a shelf full) is that we should enter our scenes at the last possible moment. Which implies another truism near and dear to my writing heart: we should be “mission-driven” when we open a scene, already fully aware of the primary narrative contribution the scene is intended to accomplish. If the writer doesn’t know that, then a scene becomes a “search for meaning” exercise, which in turn means it is destined to ramble.

    Also, where you are in the overall arc of the story helps define the length of the scene you are writing. First quartile scenes (pre-First Plot Point) have a different context (and length) than post-launch (hero’s quest), they can be more liberal with ramp up and description. Later in the story though, Goldman’s Rule kicks in, and you should skip the chit-chat and how-he-gets-from-point-A-to-point-B stuff (filler) and cut deep right into the point (mission) of the scene.

    If you can cut it and the scene still works… then cut it.

    All of this implies that the writer is very aware of their core story arc, the role/mission of the scene and its placement within the story. Anything less than that full awareness risks chubby scenes that arise from a context of “still searching for the story itself,” which never leads to a draft that works.

    • “We should be “mission-driven” when we open a scene, already fully aware of the primary narrative contribution the scene is intended to accomplish. If the writer doesn’t know that, then a scene becomes a “search for meaning” exercise, which in turn means it is destined to ramble.”

      Excellent way of putting it!! Every writer should post this in red neon above their screen.

  12. I tend to make my chapters thematic. As long as I am on a particular theme or in a particular scene I keep it in one chapter and have never really thought about length as much as continuity.

    As a general rule regarding length, I do try to keep them under six feet long, as it is hard to fold the pages that many times.

  13. I just got an email from my workshop lady. She wants to thank you all for weighing in with your advice today. Said it was extremely helpful. She’s too shy to comment but plans to come back and lurk. I told her she has to work on her courage. It’s a good quality to have if you write. 🙂

  14. Between this excellent post and the comments, I feel like I just attended an online course on writing craft. Thank you. The idea of knowing your purpose and writing a scene that meets it strikes a chord: elegant yet simple which makes it memorable.

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