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On the Length of Chapters (and Other Related Musings)

So, as my (long-suffering  and unerringly patient) writing group can tell you, my chapters are long. At this point, my book has 5 chapters completed in full draft form, and together they come to just shy of 55,000 words. So we might say that my average chapter length is about 11,000.

I think there are two main reasons for this. The first (and less artistically driven) reason is that, like some of my writing models, I tend to err on the side of too many (details, scenes, characters, adjectives) rather than too few; when I do a chapter outline that includes 5 scenes that I naively think I can put into about 15 single-spaced pages (which is around the 11,000 mark), I tend to find myself bumping up against that limit with at least one or two scenes still to go. The second (and more artistically driven — at least, I’d like to think so) reason for my long chapters comes from some advice I got from a writing teacher this past year, regarding first-person chapters specifically.

In his (paraphrased) words, first-person chapter breaks have a special extra obligation that third-person chapter breaks don’t have, mainly because first-person chapters are always, at least to some extent, a narrator telling the story to a listener. What this means in practice is that when you’re telling a first-person story (like Kvothe’s in Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, one of my all-time favorites of the last 5 years), the pauses of chapter breaks should reflect what the character would consider to be natural pauses in the story they’re telling. In other words, cliffhangers don’t work as well in a first-person narrative as they do in a third-person, more removed one. This is a policy I’m trying to follow in this book, with each chapter kinda-sorta telling its own mini-story as well as seeding larger story questions to help the readers keep going (at least, I hope that’s what I’m doing).

Since I do want to someday get my book published, though, and since many of us aspiring writers are at least a little bit concerned about what’s “normal,” I decided to do an experiment this morning. With the help of my equally nerdy husband, I took a very unscientific sample of nerdy books from our home shelves, and made my best attempt at an estimate of chapter length.

My (somewhat scientific) rubric:

  • Average words per line ( = count 2 or 3 full lines of text and take the mean) multiplied by
  • Lines per page (= on a full page of text, without scene breaks) multiplied by
  • Pages per chapter (of the first chapter; taking into account half-pages at the beginning and end)
  • Take the product of these 3 and subtract 10%, to account for short lines of dialogue, scene breaks, etc.

My conclusion: discounting one significant outlier, the average chapter length of the 15 titles I sampled was just shy of 6000 words. Which means that my chapters are, indeed, longer than average. However, the only other book in my sample whose scientifically determined chapter length broke 10,000 was Fellowship of the Ring, so y’know, that’s not bad company to be in.

My data, for those as may be interested:

Author Title Year WPL LPP Pages Total -10%
Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 1953 9 36 66* 21384* 19245.6*
Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring 1954 14 41 21 12054 10848.6
Heinlein Starship Troopers 1959 11 30 25 8250 7425
Herbert Dune 1965 10 30 18 5400 4860
Brooks The Sword of Shannara 1977 10 39 18 7020 6318
King The Gunslinger 1982 11 31 6.5 2216.5 1994.85
Jordan The Eye of the World 1990 10 40 18 7200 6480
Martin A Game of Thrones 1996 14 42 9 5292 4762.8
Hamilton Reality Dysfunction 1996 13 45 9 5265 4738.5
Carey Kushiel’s Dart 2001 9.5 35 8 2660 2394
Kay The Last Light of the Sun 2004 9 34 31 9486 8537.4
Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell 2004 9 39 13 4563 4106.7
Novik His Majesty’s Dragon 2006 10 35 27 9450 8505
Rothfuss The Name of the Wind 2007 14 38 15 7980 7182
Sandersen The Way of Kings 2010 9 37 14 4662 4195.8

* Fahrenheit 451 is the outlier; Bradbury didn’t really break this book into chapters, just 3 “Parts.” More about that in a moment…

I sorted these by year of publication, because my original theory was that older books might have had longer chapters, but as we can see, that’s not really the case. True, the longest book with standard chapters was Fellowship, published in 1954, but the next 2 longest chapters come from books published in the last 10 years.

The other thing I noticed (or re-reminded myself of might be a more accurate way to put it) is that there are multiple ways to arrange your “chapters.” Bradbury’s approach is certainly one way, to basically ignore chapters altogether and just set your book up in bigger pieces. Another way is what I’ll call the Stephen King approach; as those familiar with The Dark Tower might know, I cheated a bit with my Gunslinger estimate, because The Gunslinger, like most of King’s works, has both chapters and “sub-chapters” (the count above is for a sub-chapter; the full first chapter of Gunslinger is about 22,500 words and over 60 pages).

So I guess the conclusion from my Sunday morning experiment is that there really is no “right” or “wrong” chapter length, just as my teacher said when he gave us that lecture 🙂 For me, these days, I think the more important factor is “chapter shape,” making your reader feel like all the stuff you’re putting together under this heading of Chapter 3 (or 6, or 1000) is actually part of the same mini-tale with its own little arc of rising action and resolution, and its own new story questions to puzzle over.

So as long as my beloved writing group continues to bear with me (Fantastifiers, have I mentioned how much I love you guys?), I’ll continue trying to cap myself around the 11,000 word mark for a discrete chapter, and let this book spin off as many extra chapters as it seems to want to… ’cause hey, that’s what revision’s for, right?

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6 Comments

  1. Matt

     /  September 2, 2012

    You know, there are a lot of ways to skin a cat (though I can only think of the one), and there are a lot of approaches to writing. If you applied someone else’s standard to the way you approached your chapters it would be a little bit less your book, wouldn’t it?

    The style and approach you apply to your stories will likely become an element of what looks and feels like a Hannah Emery book, which is necessarily different than what someone else’s book looks and feels like – otherwise you’d be a little less distinguishable from those other books.

    You be you. Your story is great.

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    • Oh, I definitely have no deep psychological hangups about writing long chapters 😉 this was more of an intellectual exercise to appease my own curiosity about how other people broke their stories up. and I /am/ trying to limit myself (somewhat) so that y’all can still read “full chapters” while not plowing through submissions from me that are 7 times as long as the submissions from everyone else.

      but most days, I am my own story’s biggest fan. so no worries there. 😉

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  2. I agree with Matt. I’m willing to bear with you! I have the opposite problem. I’ve been going through my novel (which is approx. 95,000 words so far) and realizing I’m adding more and more words! I think a chapter can be a paragraph, heck, even a word and it can be also be 30,000 words. Writing is a form of art and there really aren’t any rules…except for the ones you create for yourself, but that would be limiting. Stick with what feels good to you in your gut, because that’s what will make it a book by Hannah!

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  3. apocalypseweather

     /  September 3, 2012

    I love your nerdy statistics! I expect no less from you. (And yeah, don’t worry about the chapter lengths.)

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  4. Kirsten

     /  September 8, 2012

    Hm. Are Kushiel’s Dart and Name of the Wind the only ones you looked at that are in first person? Sorry I have a bad memory and am too lazy to check them myself. 😉

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    Reply
    • Starship Troopers is, too. You make a good point, though — maybe I should do a more comprehensive study sometime with that as a limiting factor 😉

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