by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Of course we start with two Career Authors’ mantras: “Anything can work” and “There are no rules.”

That said, here’s a rule: Book must have chapters.

I once received a manuscript for critiquing which started at page 1 and went to the end: no chapters. Not one. Or…only one, but it wasn’t called Chapter 1. The book just went on and on…and on and on. I didn’t want to be too critical of this writer, but my first thought was: Have you ever read a book?

Because books—fiction no matter the genre, and non-fiction too—are made of chapters.

Every chapter is a puzzle piece of the whole book. And every chapter has a purpose.

So how long should a chapter be? It seems like a reasonable question and it is, but as always the answer is “It depends.” Happily, it’s not difficult to figure out what it depends on.

Your premier goal is to advance the story

That means each chapter must be part of that propulsion, that forward movement. Anne Lamott suggests treating each chapter like a short story, a world onto itself. In his brilliant book Story, Robert McGee writes that each scene should advance plot or character, even both—or it has to go.

What must be in a chapter?

A chapter is usually—not always—one scene. A scene has a beginning, middle and end. In general, one important thing takes place in each. Unless it’s a chase or a moving situation, it usually takes place in one setting. A chapter generally starts out with a character wanting something and going after it. Then in the end, whether the character was successful or not, another problem is presented and, oh, the reader thinks, what will happen next? I have to know! End of chapter.

Some ways to end your chapters are here. And here.

A typical book of fiction, commercial fiction especially, is about 385 pages long. In general, today’s popular novels will not be 300 pages, and probably will not reach 400 pages.

Be consistent with your chapter lengths

This is important, whether you write long chapters (which would be 20 pages), or medium chapters (10 pages) or short chapters (3 to 5 pages).

All of those can work! Bottom line: at the end of each chapter, you want your reader to say Oh, I love this so much I’m going to read one more chapter.  When your book is consistently paced, they can predict how long that next chapter will be, and whether that’s a doable thing just then.

Why would you choose a 20-page chapter? It may be that your book is literary, lyrical, with long immersive passages of interior thought or description or philosophy. Perhaps the metabolism of your novel is slow and profound.

If your goal is to propel the reader forward, a 20-page chapter might feel long.

A ten-page chapter is more common. Ten pages are enough for something to be set up, for a change or two to occur and for a surprise or hook to emerge at the end.

These days, though, even ten pages—unless they are intense and compelling—can feel a little long.

A test: if you took your ten-page chapter and cut it in half, what would happen? Would it be more powerful? I’m not saying to chop up your chapters, but try it and evaluate the results.

A five-page chapter is often successful in high-stakes, fast-paced suspense. Having shorter chapters like that makes the pacing feel more like a ticking clock: as seconds go by, you’re quickly turning the pages and then bang, you’re ready for something new.

A shorter chapter, even three pages, is James Patterson’s brilliantly successful stock in trade. Readers gobble up that chapter length, because each of his chapters are compelling, relentless—then over. And onto the next.

Especially for readers with short attention spans, this is enormously enjoyable. But if that is not your style, and if you are not skilled at it, a book with three-page chapters can feel choppy and thin to readers. However, James Patterson is the master, demonstrating how this strategy can succeed.

How has it worked for other authors?

I counted the pages in the first several chapters in a spectrum of books and it was illuminating! The results were sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising. Again, proof that anything can work. Decide for yourself: Do you want to take your literary cues from Lahiri or McGinty?

Edith Wharton’s literary fiction Custom of the Country was written in 1913. The pages in her chapters are 10, 8, 10, 12. Very readable, very rhythmic.

Wallace Stegner’s literary Angle of Repose: 16, 13, 8, 10, 6. Hmm. Surprisingly different lengths. Maybe that’s for a pacing reason.

Dennie Lehane’s literary crime Live By Night: 17, 16, 14, 12. That’s very long for contemporary fiction—what do you make of that?

Agatha Christie’s iconic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: 10, 12, 16, 16, 10, 10. That’s long for a mystery, but this was published in 1926.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. This is super-literary fiction: 21, 26, 24, 25. (By page 97, there have been four chapters. How would you feel reading that? Or asking your readers to?)

Megan Miranda‘s The Last House Guest, a super-popular contemporary psychological thriller: 7, 11, 8, 10.

Sandra Brown’s brand new Outfox : 14, 13, 10, 9. Surprising? Yes. But each chapter is two scenes. So they feel shorter.

Adrian McKinty‘s propulsive thriller The Chain: 4, 4, 4, 3, 7, 5.

Compare the chapter lengths in your manuscript to those books. Which author are you most like? Analyze what that author’s intent was.

How long should your chapter be?

As you can see, it depends on what you’re writing and the pacing and rhythm of your story. It depends on how you can best structure your story to keep the reader interested and turning the pages.

But unless you’re Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri, you might not want to have your chapters be 25 pages. The iconic Stephen King’s brilliant The Institute defies all expectations. Part 1 only has numbered scenes; some are shorter than two pages. (Don’t try this at home, folks.)

Today’s editors will be happy with a ten-page chapter—no longer than that! And perhaps shorter.

Are you wrangling with chapter lengths? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!