There are not very many hard and fast rules in creative writing. In fact, most people who talk about the rules fall into two camps: those who tell you that there are no rules, and idiots. As we gain more experience in our writing, we come to develop our own sense of the structures, practices and guidelines that apply within our own particular niches. We gain confidence in our own particular way of doing things, and over time, we stop worrying about the little, mechanical things so we can focus on the story problems.
But beginners have no such confidence, and in their minds, each word they write is potentially “the problem” – the thing they are doing that makes their writing crap, that earns them rejections from publishers and snickers of derision from their peers whenever they are out of the room. We can tell them that there are no such rules, but they tend to dismiss us, worrying that we’re only saying that to perpetuate the joke, testing to see how long it will take them to catch on, as some sort of initiation rite. It isn’t true of course, but just try telling them that.
Take chapter length, as an example. When I first started writing, I wondered how long chapters were supposed to be. What’s the rule that tells you when one chapter is over and the next is ready to begin? All the sage advice I could find said the same thing: there is no rule. Take a look at a shelf full of books, and you’ll find all kinds of variation. One book might have 10 chapters, and another book beside it, in the same genre, and the same length, might have 72. But instead of seeing that as liberating, most beginners see it as terrifying. There must be a rule, but they can’t see it.
So, in an attempt to provide some reassurance to my writing students, peers, and any fans who might have number fetishes, I have embarked on this series of articles that don’t seek to convey rules, but instead, try to put ranges on a number of the “how many”- or “how big”-style questions that newcomers might have when they first begin to put stories onto paper. In previous articles, I’ve explored “How long are paragraphs?” and “How long should dialogue be?” Today I’ll be talking about how long chapters tend to be.
As with the previous articles, I won’t be providing any rules. What I will tell you is how the numbers shape up in other authors’ works. I’ve selected a collection of books from across the fantasy genre, and measured the lengths of their chapters. By sharing these numbers, I hope to give some writers a bit more confidence. You might not have a rule for how long your chapters are, but if you can see that your chapter lengths are in line with the averages for the genre, or are very similar to some author you’ve always admired, a lot of fear and uncertainty evaporates.
Before we get started, here’s the list of books I’ll be examining. It’s the same collection as last time, with the addition of Dune, and a few titles omitted, for technical reasons. (Translation: the code I wrote to examine chapters does not work well with the structure of the ebook I have, and I’m too lazy to figure out how to fix the code. :-) The included titles are as follows:
- The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, both by JRR Tolkien
- The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin
- The Final Empire (Mistborn #1), by Brandon Sanderson
- The Black Company, by Glen Cook
- The Prince of Nothing, by R. Scott Bakker
- Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb
- Strange Places, by Jefferson Smith
- Lord Foul’s Bane (Thomas Covenant #1), by Stephen Donaldson
- Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, by S. A. Hunt
- The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
- Dune, by Frank Herbert
- and Santiago, by Mike Resnick
Longest Chapter: The Last Unicorn takes the prize, with a longest chapter of 23,000 words, followed closely by The Black Company, at 21,000 words. At the other end of the spectrum, The Final Empire had the shortest chapters, with a max chapter length of only 8,500 words, followed by Dune, with a longest chapter of 9,500 words. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I remember Dune as a sprawling novel, but apparently, that sprawl did not carry over to chapter lengths. All the other titles in the collection had max chapter lengths between 10K and 16K words, and the average longest chapter was 11,700 words.
Average Chapter Length: The title with the shortest chapters, on average, was Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, averaging just 2,900 words each. But again as a surprise to me, Dune was a close second, averaging just 3,800 words per chapter. The longest average chapter lengths were Lord of the Rings (7,500), Prince of Nothing (8,700), and the beefiest chapters were found in The Black Company, with an average chapter length of 11,300 words. The collection as a whole posted an average chapter length of 6,100 words.
Mostly Less Than: If we’re trying to tease any rules of thumb out of these analyses, I think it’s this category: the mostly less than level. If 95% of all the chapters in this collection are less than 11,000 words (as they are), then we can perhaps advise beginners that aiming to keep their chapter lengths under that value would be a good target.
If you’d like to examine the numbers yourself, I include the chart here, for your sorting pleasure.
|Book||Num||Max||Avg||Mostly Less Than|
|Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree||45||5163||2936||5108|
|The Wizard of Earthsea||10||5701||4573||6004|
|Prince of Nothing||20||11096||8733||12185|
|The Lord of the Rings||62||16316||7553||12671|
When we look at the graphs of how chapter lengths stack up in individual books, I had expected to see them all with a typical “hump” curve (a Bell curve, for those who prefer the technical term). But I was surprised to see that many titles did not follow this trend.
The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) shows the classic Bell curve distribution, or nearly so, with most of its chapters being between 4,500 and 6,500 words long, and a smaller number of chapters less than 4,000 or greater than 7,000 words. Other titles, such as Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, Santiago and Assassin’s Apprentice had similar tendencies to cluster in the middle. Although Assassin’s Apprentice showed a rather extreme tendency for chapters to lie between 4,500 and 7,000 words.
Other titles, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Last Unicorn, and Dune, showed a Bell-shaped curve, but skewed heavily toward the shorter chapters. I find it interesting that all of these are from a markedly earlier period than the other books in the collection. This might suggest that modern styles are shifting toward fewer short chapters, pushing the hump to the middle ranges, but I can’t think of any reason why this might be the case. It almost seems to fly in the face of the notion that modern audiences are conditioned to want their entertainment cut into shorter segments.
Two books in this review stood out, seemingly alone with respect to their chapter length distributions. The first, Lord Foul’s Bane, had a good number of chapters scattered among the shorter lengths, and then a bunch piled up right around the 8,000 word mark, skewing its graph toward longer chapters. The other oddity was my own Strange Places, which seemed to have two humps: one between 5,000 and 6,000 words, and another at 10,000. Or maybe that’s just an anti-preference for the middle range. I’m not sure.
So there it lies. Chapters seem to range all over the place, in terms of length, and whether yours tend to be 3,000 words long, or 12,000 words, you are not alone. There are precedents that you can point to that should make you feel more comfortable about your style.
But not if you write 200-word chapter-ettes. Or 60,000 word bricks. If you fall into either of those extremes, you may want to ask yourself if you are using the same definition of chapter that the rest of us are using.