Now that we’ve covered how many words are in a novel, it’s time to break it down even further by finding out the ideal number of chapters in a novel and how many words are used in a typical chapter.
As previously discussed, there are different requirements for both fiction and non-fiction genres. Since there are varying ranges when it comes to the number of words in a novel (depending on the genre) it’s also expected that novel chapters would have no stringent rules when it comes to word count.
What is the purpose of having chapters in your novel? According to NY Book Editors, chapters (also called chapter breaks) give your reader “a mental respite” and “allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened within that section.”
So why is chapter length so important? Reedsy, a publishing platform, encourages keeping chapter length reasonable in order to sustain your reader’s interest and prevent information overload. It also helps you set the pace of your story and create suspense as you deem necessary.
A sensible chapter length gives room to build up suspense—yet, it should end the chapter precisely at that point when your reader needs a breather to process the events which ensued in that part of your story.
It is important to end a chapter with a gripping thought—one that would compel your reader to get back into the story after taking a little break.
Of course, there are distinctions between writing chapters for fiction and non-fiction. We’ve broken them down here for easy reference.
Fiction Novel Chapter Word Count and Breaks
When it comes to chapter length, Brian A. Klems of Writer's Digest says that “there are no hard-and-fast rules” and that “each chapter in your book tells a mini-story that forwards your overall plot.”
Klems further advises to “let your content dictate your chapter length, not the other way around.”
For fiction novels, the number of chapters varies — some may go as far as 50, but the general average seems to be 12 chapters.
Literature on chapter breaks often notes the best method is to know primarily “when and how to end a chapter.” It’s not a matter of how many words you use, but how you utilize your plot or sequence of events to compel your audience to keep reading.
Most writers and editors advise that you start writing freely at first, then assess later on where to place chapter breaks.
Sectioning your story into chapters is best done during the first phase of editing your initial draft. This is when you begin to have a structural feel of your story. This also helps you figure out what a target chapter word count might, as a consistent chapter length gives readers an anchor while engrossed in your novel.
“It’s during the editing phase when you’re most effective at correcting flow, pacing, and logic,” says NY Book Editors.
Think of the process as like making bread — you begin by mixing all the necessary ingredients together to form a dough. Then, you bake the dough to turn it into bread before cutting it up into slices.
During the first phase of editing, start dividing your story into chapters by creating an outline. This will give you a better idea of where to place the highs and lows in the sequence of events.
Once you are satisfied with the overall structure, remember to end each chapter in a stimulating manner to keep your reader wanting more from the story.
The same Reedsy article cited above recommends these approaches when writing a chapter ending:
A promise or foreshadowing of things to come – this creates intrigue and sets the reader’s mind thinking: what comes next?
A resolve or a means to summarize the chapter – you can use a flashback to re- familiarize the reader with past events or bring a scene to a close with a resolution.
A cliffhanger – this can either be ending the chapter in the middle of a suspenseful scene or with a character’s realization which would affect his decisions or actions in the next chapter.
A shift in POV – you can utilize a chapter break “to switch things up” in order to transition to another character’s POV in the next chapter.
Always think of chapter breaks as rest breaks for your reader. However, you need to sustain your reader’s anticipation and interest in order for them to keep reading your book.
To give you a general idea of the average chapter length, the range is usually between 3,000 to 5,000 words. But remember, this is more of a guideline than a rule.
For example, if you’re writing for genres that have a word count range of 80,000-89,999 words (i.e. Mainstream, Thriller, Horror, Romance, Suspense, Mystery, and Literary) and you want to adhere to the 3,000–5,000 word count range per chapter, then that would probably entail about 16 to 30 chapters.
Some chapters will end up being longer than others—don’t fixate on the word count, focus on the storytelling instead.
Shorter chapters are typically used at the beginning of the story to speed up the tempo towards the climax, but it all depends on the creative intent of your book.
Finally, develop your writer’s instincts by immersing yourself in the art. In order to write well, you need to be a voracious reader, too.
Non-fiction Novel Chapter Word Count and Breaks
Non-fiction novels are mostly designed for learning more than leisure. Because of this, they tend to be short and more straightforward — your readers want to read and learn what they can at the shortest possible time.
They also need more time to absorb and process the information they acquire from your book. So while your non-fiction book seems short, the thought process involved increases its value.
For non-fiction novels, Author Unlimited gives some methodologies and advice but asserts that there is “no right way to write a book.”
Here are some principles you can work with to keep you on the right track:
Be clear about the purpose and intent of your book. – In terms of length, Author Unlimited recommends writing structurally sound sections and making good use of bullets and numbers.
A reasonable word count for a non-fiction book would be between 30,000 to 50,000 words. Your chapter length has to work well with the overall word count of the book — short chapters create an even distribution of both content and action.
A chapter should only be as long as necessary – it should be enough to communicate your message effectively.
Some readers skim through chapters, others may only choose topics that are relevant to them. Organize your chapters in such a way that makes it easier for your readers to find what they need.
Each chapter should be comprehensive by itself – the content on the topic or sub-topic should be complete and can stand on its own. Cite examples and stories to help your reader achieve full comprehension of the topic being discussed.
Work on transitioning seamlessly from one chapter to another. – While content for each chapter should be complete and independent, your novel still needs to have a logical flow — from beginning to end. There has to be a “connection” that ties your chapters together. This will encourage your audience to read the whole book.
There are techniques you can use to make your non-fiction novel more engaging. An open-ended question at the end of the chapter or a story told in bits and pieces across all chapters are some approaches which may help sustain your reader’s interest.
Use as many chapters as you need to tell a complete story or to relay necessary information. – Opting for fewer chapters may lengthen each section excessively and bore the reader. Conversely, chapters that are too short may not give you enough room to provide the complete story. Don't let a particular word count drive your story, make it about the content.
Your chapter should be clearly structured. – There has to be a structure within the chapter itself. Use sub-headings to guide your reader through its content.
Your chapters should be of similar length. – While it’s understandable that each chapter can’t exactly be of the same length, a similar word count makes for consistency. Free tools like our word counter can help you stay on track.
Entice your reader at the beginning of the book. – With so many books (and e- books at that) in the market, it is essential to grab attention right away. People don’t have time to read through a lot of details — the first few pages of your book should instantly capture your reader’s interest.
To sum things up, these are the key points you need to keep in mind when writing a non-fiction novel: structure, readability, engagement, and value for your reader.