Writing Tip Tuesday: How Do I Know When My Chapter is Over?

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.)

To read what other writers have to saw about breaking your book into chapters, click HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.

Author: LDS Publisher

I am an anonymous blogger who works in the LDS publishing industry. I blog about topics that help authors seeking publication and about published fiction by LDS authors.

7 thoughts on “Writing Tip Tuesday: How Do I Know When My Chapter is Over?”

  1. Great points LDSP. All of them will help every author. I would only add a couple of thoughts to your already thoughtfully thorough thoughts.

    Though historical tends to have longer chapters, doesn't it depend on the nature of those chapters? If you're in a part of the novel where there is a sequence of action, or suspence, or mystery, the chapters can be shorter to aid to the intrigue.

    Another consideration about chapters is the resolution of your story. If you have five plots lines that are interconnected in your story and they are introduced in chapters 1,2,3,4,5 order. Then developed in that same order in the following five chapters 6 (plot 1), 7 (plot 2), 8 (plot 3), 9 ( plot 4) and 10 (plot 5). You can then begin to resolve your plots in that same order over the following five chapters or you can decide to resolve them in reverse order.

    This kind of pacing in your chapters gives your novel an internal order that the reader will not directly recognize, but it will lead them to a satisfying sense that their is some sort of consistency to your story telling.

  2. And THIS is exactly why your blog has a link on my publisher's website! (Sorry, don't mean to gush)

  3. Anonymous,

    Thought #1: Yes, I totally agree.

    Thought #2: This is a little simplistic. Most subplots don't come out quite that clean. But basically, yes, I agree.

    And Kristine, thank you! I had no idea WiDo linked to me. I had to go stare at the link for a bit. Sigh.

  4. About LDSP's Comment #2 on Anonymous Comment #2:

    Simplistic? Okay. That's right, but you have to start with simplistic to make the point. This is more of an "order of introduction" of plot lines. And certainly once they are introduced, they immediately begin impacting the other plots lines. So then you're stuck with the dilema of trying to figure out: is this plot #3 or #4?

    What I do is decide which of the plot it "most" develops and then organize the chapter accordingly. Sure, there will be "other" plots developed in the chapter, but I lable it with the one that is most impacting.

    As the novel progresses the overlap becomes more and more complex and it becomes difficult to distinguish, which I use as a sign that I'm finally arriving at or near the end of the novel and it is now time to find ingenious ways to resolve each plot line and get to the end–and do it with enough internal organization that I can at least justify to myself and which will give the reader and sense of that internal consistency in the story telling.

    As the novel prgresses, it does get more complex and messier, but its certainly doable. And the reader will thank you from the bottom of their organized heart.

  5. I've read several books lately with annoyingly short chapters. When the chapters are too short, especially a lot of short chapters in a sequence, the story feels choppy. Short chapters should serve a purpose rather than being the "in" thing.

  6. Jennie:

    Short chapters are the easy thing. Like telling a story is easier than showing it. Infinitely easier. Short chapters are not the "in" thing. They are the path of easiest publication. And if you can get published with lots of simpler, short chapters, why bother? Its another one of those art vs. business canundrums. The pool of authors who obsess over the business of publishing more than they obsess over the art of story-telling, are always finding way to economize, get rid of waste, reduce time costs, meet deadlines, improve efficiency.

    Lots of short chapters are a business, not a fashion.

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