I’m ready to divide my manuscript into chapters and I was wondering if there is an equation for converting my document pages into book pages. This would greatly help me with placing chapter breaks.
A general rule of thumb (and you know that old adage about rules) is that a chapter should be about 10 to 12 pages, maybe 14, but no more than 16. It’s also generally a good idea to vary the length of chapters, to create drama or suspense. For example, chapter 1 might be 10 pages; chapter 2 might be 12 pages; chapter 3, 14 pages; chapter 4, 10 pages. You get the idea.
Chapter length is also dependent on genre. Historical, romance and literary fiction have longer chapters. Mystery and suspense have shorter chapters—sometimes only two to three pages. I’ve seen chapters that are only a few words. This is rare, but can be used effectively.
I’d rather an author err on the side of short chapters, rather than one that goes on and on. (Readers do occasionally need bathroom breaks, after all.) Also, I like chapters that end with a little tease, inviting me to—sometimes demanding that I—read on.
However, the number of pages in a chapter is less important than what happens in a chapter. Just like a paragraph conveys a unique idea, a chapter creates a unique scene or event that moves the story forward in a concrete step; or a chapter may be a series of small but interconnected scenes or events. It’s a matter of feeling complete.
There is no magic number or equation. I’d recommend that you do some study of the structure of popular books in your genre. Pick a few best sellers from a variety of authors and do some analyzing as you read.
- Count the number of chapters, as well as the number of pages in each chapter. What is the average length? Are the chapters within the books the same length or varied?
- How does the author use the chapter length to add tension to the story?
- Analyze the structure of individual chapters—is it one scene or several related scenes? Is it one event, one POV, or multiple events and POVs?
- Does the chapter feel cohesive and complete?
- Does it end at a natural break in scene or events? Or does it end in a cliff hanger? Does this help or hinder the reading experience?
After you’ve analyzed several popular books by authors you enjoy, go back to your book. Read it slowly, noticing where it changes scenes, events and/or POV. At each change, determine if this is a good place for a chapter break or if it is a small change that is part of a larger scene or event by asking yourself the same questions you asked as you analyzed the books you read.
- Are there a sufficient number of pages since the beginning of the chapter? Are there too many? Do I need to develop this scene or action a little more? Do I need to cut some of it out or break it into two chapters? (How long was the previous chapter? Is this one a little shorter? A little longer?)
- Does this scene or event (or these several interconnected scenes or events) draw to a natural conclusion?
- Does this section feel cohesive and complete?
- Does this feel like a natural breaking place?
- Do I want this chapter to have a soft ending/resolution? Or do I want it to be a cliff hanger? (What was the previous chapter ending? I recommend varying this a bit. That doesn’t mean they can’t all be cliff hangers, but vary the “height” of the cliffs the reader will be hanging from.)