How long should a chapter be? Five years ago, in this very space, I wrote a practical guide to chapter length–and much of it still holds true today.

Much of it? Well, yeah. Some books don’t have chapters now, at least they don’t call them chapters.  More on what’s different  in a minute.

But this is still true:

Your premier goal is to advance the story

That means each chapter must be part of that propulsion, that forward movement. In his brilliant book Story, Robert McKee writes that each scene should advance plot or character, even both—or it has to go.

And this:

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.

And this:

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 just 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.

And this:

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.

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.

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 on to the next.

But now, five years later, have chapter length expectations changed?

Back then, 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, I suggested.  Which author are you most like? Analyze what that author’s intent was. But have chapter expectations–or chapter organizations–changed?

To find out, I did another chapter length experiment with current big books.

And you can do it with me. I typed in book titles and authors FIRST, and now let’s see how long their chapters are.

ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK by Chris Whitaker (just released, and about to top the NYT list) The pages in his opening chapters ( and this stays throughout) are: 1.5, 1,5, 2, 2.5,  2. No chapter in the entire 600-page novel is longer than 3 or so pages. And it moves lightning fast.

THE MINISTRY OF TIME by Kaliane Bradley (speculative fiction). The first chapter has 26 pages, then a separate “II” section of 3 and a half,  then Chapter 2 has 35 pages, then a separate III.   And nb: each chapter has many separate delineated scenes, each of which is about 1 page long.  (See how the quirky structure mirrors the quirky genre?)

SWIFT RIVER by Essie Chambers, a much-anticipated literary fiction debut.  Chapter 1 is 12.5 pages, then theres a 2-page letter, then chapter 2 is 22.5 pages.

ONE PERFECT COUPLE the newest by Ruth Ware the “new Agatha Christie.”   4.5,  14.5 12, 19.5.   The chapters are interspersed with short and mysterious radio distress calls.   (And look at Agatha Christie’s page count, above.)

THIS IS WHY WE LIED by Karin Slaughter, the newest blockbuster Will Trent thriller.   Prologue:12 pages.  Then 20.5, 19.5, 20, 8.5, 17    (Long chapters…maybe she’s thinking about the richness of her TV series?)

THE COMFORT OF GHOSTS  (the final installment of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maysie Dobbs series)   15.5 (but 2 separate scenes) ,  19  (with 5 separated scenes) 16.5 (4  separated scenes)

MAISIE DOBBS Just for fun, I checked the very first installment of Jacqueline Winspear’s series. And look:  6,  6.5, 8.5, 7.5.  Have her chapters have gotten longer? Not really–she’s just put more scenes in one chapter.

A HAPPIER LIFE by Kristy Woodson Harvey (a charming Southern beach book). 10, 9, 8.5. (And there are no chapter numbers! She uses titles and POV for each instead.)

ERUPTION , the blockbuster by James Patterson (and Michael Crichton.)  3, 3, 3, 3.  Almost every chapter is 3 pages long.   (And the print is larger than a typical book.)

How long should your chapters 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 or  have the speculative time-travel uniqueness of Kaliane Bradley 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! But these days, depending on your genre, it they could be very happy with shorter than that.

Pro tip: can you cut your long chapter in half? Remembering that the beginning of a chapter needs as much special attention as the end.)  And another pro tip: Look at the last three paragraphs of your chapter? What if you deleted them?

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