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Dear Editor: Is There an Optimum Chapter Length?

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)— In her latest column, our fearless leader and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, responds to a reader query on chapter length… “How long should chapters in my novel be? Does it even matter?” —John S.” No Rules, But Rules of Thumb Yes, it matters, but relax. There are no rules… [Read More]

What is best chapter length by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)

In her latest column, our fearless leader and veteran editor, Betty Kelly Sargent, responds to a reader query on chapter length...

“How long should chapters in my novel be? Does it even matter?”

—John S.”

No Rules, But Rules of Thumb

Yes, it matters, but relax. What is best chapter length by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.comThere are no rules when it comes to chapter length. The important thing is to concentrate on making your chapters fit your story, not on making your story fit your chapters.

Many novelists these days prefer chapters that are between 1,500 words—or six book pages— and 8,000 words, or 32 book pages. But, there are hundreds of famous exceptions.

Some Notable Chapter Length Exceptions

What is best chapter length by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.comDonna Tartt’s (624-page) novel The Little Friend has only six chapters, ranging in length from 52 to 166 pages. Jennifer Egan’s (433-page) novel Manhattan Beach is divided into eight parts, each containing from two to five of the book’s 31 chapters. And Ian McEwan simply divides his (221-page) novel The Children Act into five parts.What is best chapter length by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

Chapter length helps create the rhythm of your book. Do you want your novel to feel fast-paced and breathless? Then you should try to keep chapters on the short side. If your story is more leisurely, then longer chapters may be appropriate.

Mixing It Up

What is best chapter length by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.comAlso, I’m a big fan of varied chapter length. Sue Monk Kidd’s (335-page) novel The Mermaid Chair is a shining example of how effective this can be. Four of her chapters are just over three pages, many are seven or eight pages, and one is 22 pages. The impact is gripping, creating that can’t-put-it-down feeling, right from the start.

So there you have my take on chapter length. You can follow the current conventions, go rogue, or anything in between, but let your story dictate how it should be told.


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