Tuesday, 16 October 2012

How long should a book chapter be?

Who cares?

Before I started writing professionally I really didn't care how long a chapter should be. For non fiction, the answer was simple - a chapter should cover a topic completely. Imagine a world guide to travelling where you visit fifty countries. You would expect each country would have it's own chapter. That seems pretty logical to me.

Fiction is entirely different though. What makes up a chapter? How long should it be? Does the length matter? The more I looked into it, the more I realised that it may be important.

Consider how and when people read.

In the BBC sitcom 'My Family' Ben Harper (Robert Lindsay)
 read Tom  Clancy books in bed, appearing to take a year
to finish each book.

  • Some sit down for an extended period of time and read a book all in one sitting because they are totally engrossed by it. (Please - Powers that be, send me more readers like that!)
  • Some read in bed before they go to sleep
  • Some read in those quiet times of the day
  • Some snatch a few minutes at various times while they are busy
  • Some read to relax and wind down
  • Some read paper books
  • Some read ebooks on an e-reader or their phone
  • Some read ebooks on a computer
Next consider how fast they read. It seems an average reader, reading fiction has a reading speed of about 200-240 words per minute or a little less than a page. This reading speed drops when reading non-fiction, where comprehension and retention is more important. It also drops when reading on a computer screen - e-readers don't appear to suffer from this effect.

If you want to measure your reading speed and comprehension I found a page at http://
bit.ly/OENAKs which allows you to test your reading speed.

So let's take the scenario of a reader reading a paper novel in a break at work.
  • They have perhaps 10 minutes
  • They read at 200 words per minute
  • It's not vital that they remember everything
  • They don't have a bookmark with them
  • They don't want to spend five minutes finding their place
Under such a situation you need to keep a chapter to 2,000 words or about  eight pages. Less is probably better.

Ebooks have changed the game. They remember your place in a book so there is no searching for your place. There is still that "I'll just finish this chapter," effect though. A good author needs to finish the chapter with a 'hook' to make sure the reader comes back and reads the next one rather than put the book down and forget it.

...and that means

Keep your chapters short - maybe five pages.
Try to finish each chapter with enough of a cliffhanger to make your reader want to continue.

Now the question is am I right? Do you think shorter chapters are better? We've certainly tried to do this in the later books of the A Vested Interest series.


  1. Interesting. Do you end up with about 30 chapters then? It should make a quick read and a fast pace.

  2. I have come to think you are right about the shorter chapters. Thanks for the advice about the "hook" at the end of a chapter.

  3. 30 chapters? Err... no. Our books tend to be long so try 104.



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