How long should a chapter be? Should be it be one scene? Is there a word maximum or minimum to guide us? Like all story questions we analyze with our Story Grid tools, we can take an analytical approach to this problem and come up with an answer supported by the stories we love to study.
Why break your story into chapters in the first place? Theoretically, you could let the reader decide when and whether to put the book down before reaching the end. But if you do, the vast majority of readers will find the prospect of reading your book too daunting and decide not to finish it. They may also find that lack of chapters strange. Readers expect a book to have chapters. We often peruse the chapter titles before deciding to buy a book, or we turn to them to see if they hold any clues as to what’s coming. If you flip through your favorite books, I am certain that all of them are divided into chapters or sections in some way.
So, if we know that it is nearly universally agreed that you should have chapters (or break points of some type) in your novel, how do you figure out where to put those pauses?
To solve this question, I’ll use a method Story Grid nerds know well–study the masterworks and see how they approached the problem. For this article, I’m looking at fiction novels, but the same method could be applied to nonfiction stories.
Below are some well-loved fiction novels and a breakdown of their average per chapter word counts:
- Gone Girl – 2270
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – 4400
- The Handmaids Tale – 2090
- The Martian – 4600
- The Notebook – 3200
- The Hunger Games – 3600
- The Perks of Being a Wall Flower – 13,800
- To Kill a Mockingbird – 3260
Throwing out the obvious outlier of 13,800 words, you can see that the range of averages in these masterworks is between about 2,000 words and a little under 4,700 words per chapter. If we take the average chapter length of the masterworks above (throwing out the outlier–which we’ll come back to later), we come up with 3,345 words per chapter.
This average will sound familiar to those of us who have studied Story Grid for a while as about “potato chip length”, which The Story Grid author Shawn Coyne talks about here and here. As Shawn explains, potato chip length scenes are between 2,000 and 3,000 words and have evolved in commercial fiction as a reader preferred structure.
Does that mean we should just cut up our story in chunks between 2,000 and 3,000 words? And why is that length preferred? What about the larger range of 4,700 to 2,000 we found in the masterworks we considered above? Does that range negate or support the notion of a preferred structure based on length?
As you’ve probably guessed, there is more than word count to consider when dividing up your manuscript. Today we’ll review five ways you can use chapter structure. I think of these as five opportunities to use the structure of your chapters to enhance your story. So rather than approach the word count question looking for the one answer, I’ll give you five things to consider to make your story better.
Most importantly, how you as a writer divide up your chapters is a function of the specific story you want to tell. If the story is best served by a longer or shorter chapter, do not tie yourself to a specific word count. But while each story has unique considerations for its chapter structure, there are some universal principles we can learn from the masterworks and use as guides in our own writing.
Chapter structure can enhance your story by:
- Allowing the reader to take a break from the story;
- Reinforcing the story’s narrative device;
- Giving the writer clues whether the story meets reader expectations;
- Providing appropriate pacing for the story; and
- Infusing narrative drive to keep the reader interested;
FIVE WAYS CHAPTER STRUCTURE CAN ENHANCE YOUR STORY
1. Chapters provide readers a break at satisfying times.
Most of you who found this article are probably looking for the type of information already mentioned above – how many words should my chapter include based on how many words other popular stories have included in their chapters (if this is you and you’re looking for info on a masterwork I didn’t list, there are tons of statistics out there on word counts, just start googling). That is because we as readers inherently know that we like certain chapter lengths and get turned off by others. We want to read stories that fit in our daily schedules, but we also want to read stories that feel satisfying as we read them.
No matter how good a story is, readers are going to need to take a break or multiple breaks from it for one reason or another. Most of us can’t read eighty to one hundred thousand words in one sitting, whether that’s because our brains just get tired and don’t want to process words on a page anymore or we need to take the dog for a walk.
You’ve probably experienced the disappointment of realizing you won’t be able to finish reading through the end of some event or revelation in a story before you have to put it down. I’m betting it went something like this: you are in the middle of a big reveal scene you’ve been anticipating for a while, and you are hoping to get through it before the end of your lunch break. You know you’ll be late if you don’t put the book away in no less than two minutes, but you’ve been reading for a while so you are feeling good about getting to a resolution before you have to sit the book aside for the rest of the day. As you glance a few pages ahead to gauge how much time you’ll need, your heart sinks a bit. There are another fifteen pages in this chapter, and there’s no way you’ll get through it! Rather than feeling satisfied that you finished the chapter and eager to pick the book up again, you feel frustrated. You abandon the story then, and resentful feelings prevent you from picking it for a few more days.
As an author you can’t control the concentration breaks that disrupt your readers, but you can help them plan for those breaks by structuring your story so they can consume it in small quantities. Chapters of 2-3,000 words are easy to read in six to ten minutes, and those short time commitments allow readers to get through them at their convenience. I think of these breaks as pit stops on a long drive. Even if you wanted to drive straight through from New York to Los Angeles, you’d have to stop for gas sometime.
However, chapters that are too short often lack an element of change that makes the reader feel like the story has advanced. If you had to stop for gas every five minutes, you’d soon get frustrated because you’d feel you weren’t making any progress on your cross-country journey. You may have a solid story foundation for your scenes, with the five commandments of each so well executed that there’s no way anyone could find flaws in your scene by scene story structure. Even so, if you divide your chapters so they end without demonstrating some element of change, it will leave your reader feeling confused and unsatisfied. Chapters should end at a point when the reader feels like something has resolved-even if you’ve saved your climax for the next chapter to keep the reader turning pages.
Potato chip length scenes make stories more enjoyable to read because they are just long enough to allow the story to advance through some meaningful change, but short enough to consume in small chunks of time. If you can use potato chip length scenes while still capitalizing on the four other considerations discussed below, you’ll be well on your way to an optimal structure for your book!
2. Chapter breaks can reinforce your narrative device.
Just because you shoot for 2-3,000 words per chapter doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with the structure of your story. The second chapter of Jurassic Park is 57 pages long. In fact, the entire novel is broken into only seven chapters, but behind the breakdown of the chapters is Crichton’s use of the structure of his chapters and scene breaks to mirror a larger theme of the novel. The term “iterations” references the repetition of a small patterns, or fractal curves as one of his characters explains in the story, which when repeated over and over again, create unexpected patterns more complex than we would expect given the simplicity of the original pattern. Crichton repeats a pattern of smaller stories broken out into larger “iterations” and when combined, the complexity of the story as a whole is greater than we would expect from a bunch of smaller story pieces. The very structure models one of the themes he explores in the novel–in our attempts to control our world, we often over simplify complicated systems without properly grasping the complexity of interactions involved among the various parts.
Despite the length of the chapters in Jurassic Park, Crichton didn’t compromise the readability of his novel. The overall experience of reading Jurassic Park is not diminished by the larger chapters because he provided easy “pit stops” along the way. The scenes or mini-chapters that make up the iterations vary in size but are within the ranges of potato chip length scenes. Crichton combined the best of both worlds–he divided his novel into sections using a narrative device that mirrored an important theme in his story and he still gave the reader enough opportunities to take a break from the story so they could read it in the incremental quantities of their choosing.
Similarly, the chapter structure of Bridget Jones Diary relies completely on the narrative device as told through Bridget’s daily diary entries over a course of the year. The novel has twelve chapters, one for every month, and they are longer than potato chip length. But the smaller diary entries that divide up the chapter provide the reader with pit stops along the way. The daily entries allow readers to put down the book feeling satisfied that they’d experienced another day in the life of Bridget Jones. Thus, the chapter breaks and smaller pieces of the chapters serve both the narrative device and the readability of the novel.
Gone Girl also uses diary entries for part of the book as a narrative device. The diary entries of Amy Elliott Dunn each comprise a chapter of their own and vary in length, some as short as 600 words. The diary entries couldn’t all be two thousand words because that wouldn’t feel right to the reader reading the story or to the characters who were meant to read those entries. The character and the author need the entries to sound realistic, which meant that sometimes Amy needed to rant for pages, and other times she needed to make it seem that she felt like writing less. Thus, even though Gillian Flynn ultimately hit the ideal average chapter word count with her novel, the author let the needs of the narrative device rule the day.
The Perks of being a Wallflower, our outlier from above, is an outlier because it contains only four chapters for the entire story, but the story provides plenty of pit stops as well. It’s told solely through letters that vary in size but abide both by the rule of moving the story forward through meaningful change and by dividing the story in potato chip length bits.
You should give your genres, your narrative device and other elements specific to your story priority in determining the word count of your chapters – you need not follow a strict formula to make your story work. But you should also consider word count if at all possible.
3. Chapter word counts can help you determine if you are meeting reader expectations.
As you may have observed from our list of masterworks above, stories in different genres have different average chapter word counts. Thriller and crime novels tend to have smaller chapter word counts, which gives the narrative a brisk pace with the actions and revelations happening in quick succession. Fittingly then, Gone Girl is on the lowest end of our average chapter word count.
Stories set in the science fiction and fantasy reality genres tend to have a larger word count, as they include more world building or technical background. Thus, from our examples above, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Martian both come in with an average chapter word count of over 4,000, slightly higher than potato chip length scenes.
If you find yourself with a lower or higher average chapter word count than the masterworks in your genre, ask yourself why. The Martian wouldn’t be the same without the scientific explanations–if Mark Watney didn’t use enough scientific explanation to allow the reader to understand that the Hab, his home on Mars, had become a bomb just waiting to explode, it would not have the same believability. We’d just have to take Mark’s word for it, and given the sheer number of problems Mark faces on Mars if we didn’t know that all of them were real, we might just think of him as a pessimist.
Similarly, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling had to build a never before seen world rich enough that readers understood how this different world worked, so we’d relate to the challenges Harry and his friends face. Fantasy readers typically like more detail on the new worlds they delve into–it’s part of what draws them to this type of story. But the same level of detail drags out a crime story happening in modern day New York City, and your crime story readers just want you to get on with finding the criminal!
4. Knowing your chapter word counts can help you determine if the pacing of your story is effective.
Some moments in stories are better expressed in scenes with shorter word counts. If we encounter a sudden change in life, we act quickly, talk less and reflect less in our own minds than we do when life moves along as expected. Think of an ER operating room versus one in which a procedure has been schedule. The ER doctor moves with more urgency. He’s probably not having a long conversation with the patient beforehand like he would if the surgery was schedule for the next week. He’s probably not chit chatting with his staff over their weekends, like he might if he were about to perform a planned surgery. When something demands our immediate attention and causes us to change our actions or frame of mind, we often become laser focused on that problem and speak or think more briefly.
Your chapter breaks can mimic this real-life phenomenon to create moments that are authentic. The Harry Potter series provides an outstanding example of varying scene lengths to mimic the emotions the characters feel in a situation. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contains the longest chapter in the series, at a whopping 9,000 words, and it’s called “Detention with Dolores.” In that chapter, Harry Potter is experiencing the worst detention of his life, and he feels like it will never be over. To evoke that same feeling in the reader, J. K. Rowling describes the scene in great detail, down to the slow ticking of the clock, so that the reader feels how tortuous the experience is for Harry. Contrast that very long chapter with the chapter titled “Dementor’s Kiss” in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which comes in at a little less than 2000 words. In that chapter, Harry is about to die along with his newly discovered god father. His mind is racing and it’s all happening so fast, he can’t figure out how to escape. The short scene mirrors the tension Harry feels, his inability to think and how fast time seems to him at the moment because it mirrors the way we feel and think when we experience similarly intense moments.
5. Chapter breaks provide an opportunity to add narrative drive to your story.
There is a chapter titled “Seven Days Gone” in Gone Girl in which Nick, husband and only suspect in his wife’s disappearance, goes to see his newly hired lawyer and then at the end of the scene, finally solves a riddle his wife left for him for their anniversary, something she did every year. Nick has been trying to solve the riddle for a while and his urgency has increased over time because he thinks it may lead him to a place where Amy hid something to further frame him for her murder and he needs to find it before the police. That chapter ends with Nick opening the door to his sister’s shed. It literally ends like this: “I opened the door. Nononononono.” You can bet the first time I read the story I flipped the page to the next chapter and kept on reading.
Chapter divisions provide a great way to establish cliff hangers that keep your readers turning the page. But what about that advice I gave earlier in the article to make sure something resolves in every chapter so your reader feels like the story moved forward? Nick’s problem of figuring out what Amy had in store for him at the location hinted at in the riddle remained unresolved. But something resolved in the chapter of Gone Girl I just described and it moved the story forward–Nick hired a lawyer after he’d been avoiding it and his lawyer told him what he didn’t want to hear. But after giving the reader a resolution to one problem haunting Nick, Flynn introduced another big one and left us hanging on just how big. If you can place your chapter breaks at the sweet spot where the story has moved forward through the resolution of one story crisis, but has introduced another big problem, it will keep readers satisfied and turning the page.
So how can you put all this together for an actionable guide when you are deciding how to structure your story chapters? Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my narrative device, and will it dictate how my story is structured?
- Are there places where I can put my chapter breaks to allow the reader to consume the story in small quantities of between 2 and 3,000 words?
- Does my genre allow for longer chapters, or make it more important that I stick closer to the lower end of potato chip length?
- Can I use my chapter lengths to reflect the emotions that my characters experience in them?
- Are there places I can put a chapter break to get readers to keep going to the next chapter?
The challenge is to break the chapter at a place where the reader could put down the story if she wanted to, but keep it exciting enough that she will want to plow ahead!