How many words should a chapter have? It’s a question I see asked again and again on social media.
Chapters are a valuable tool; how you use them will dictate their length. When people ask how long a chapter should be, it often indicates they haven’t decided (at least consciously) how they want to use chapters to help them tell their story.
Chapters are a way of dividing up a story into manageable chunks. But this division needs to have a consistently applied strategy throughout a book, which helps the story. What are some possible chapter strategies?
Chapters are synonymous with scenes. Each scene is treated as a distinct chapter. Thus, a typical book will have a large number of chapters, each highly variable in length. This strategy is used when the author wants to emphasise the break between each scene … or, more often, when they don’t know how to use chapters.
Chapters are a unit of reading. Each chapter can be read by a member of the target market in approximately ten to fifteen minutes. Thus, chapter lengths will be fairly consistent in size. Using this strategy can make the book easy to read, and can be a good choice for bedtime reading or keeping in the bathroom.
Chapters are a unit of story. Put another way, each chapter is an episode (like episodes of a TV show). Generally, these will be multiple scenes, yet overall length will be consistent from chapter to chapter … though usually longer than ‘unit of reading’ chapters. Note that a scene may straddle a chapter break, starting at the end of one chapter and concluding at the start of the next. Each chapter should have a common focus or theme, and often have a sort of beginning, middle, and end.
Chapters convey the passage of time. This can be as simple as, for example, a story covering five days being told in five chapters (one per day). But it can be used in other ways too: One author, who wanted to start in media res followed by a prolonged flashback, started their book with ‘Chapter Six’. This was followed by ‘Chapter One’, ‘Chapter Two’, and so on, until ‘Chapter Six (continued)’, ‘Chapter Seven’ … etc. This communicated to the reader exactly where they were chronologically; though a foreword was required to explain.
Chapters separate distinct POVs. Sometimes, when you have multiple characters acting in parallel, with marginal interaction, this can be shown by breaking the chapter every time the POV changes. For example, if your story was about a group of trapped miners, you might want to alternate chapters about the trapped miners, with chapters about the rescuers.
There may be other chapter strategies, too; anything is valid. The point is, chapters are not some arbitrary thing; they are a tool you use to help tell your story the way you think it should be told. So the next time someone asks how long a chapter should be, ask them what they are using chapters for.