Just how long should a chapter be? What’s the best length? And does a novel have to fit into a set amount of words?
These are just two of the most common questions asked by writers. They assume they have to work to a strict template of X amount of words and X amount of chapters, usually because most novels have around 30 or 40 chapters and around 80,000 words.Novel Lengths
Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths - novel lengths are dictated by the story itself, not the writer or the editor or a specific written formula. Secondly, writers don’t have to fit their word count into generic set amounts. Again, the story will dictate how long the novel will be.It’s also worth knowing the different types of novels that work well with different word counts. Uncomplicated stories containing minimal characters tend to be short – usually around 20,000 to 60,000 words. These are called novellas.
Longer, more complex stories, which contain a handful of main characters and peripheral characters, tend to run at about 60,000 to 95,000 words. This would constitute the average length novel.The saga – plenty of characters and a complex, epic story told over many generations – think Roots or War and Peace - usually run at over 100,000 words.
If you are writing a standard length novel, aim for 80,000 to 95,000 words. It doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s there to guide writers. If you set yourself a target of 85,000 words, you’ll know that if you fall short of that average figure, your story is either lacking in substance, or it doesn’t have enough fuel to be a full length novel (without some serious editing), and would therefore be a novella instead. If you go way over that figure and you find yourself easily drifting over 100,000 words, then you need to do some serious editing to reign the story back in, otherwise you risk it turning into a saga.Another reason to use these figures as a guide is that if you submit your MSS to an agent or publisher stating what kind of story it is, i.e. a thriller based novel which is a whopping 150,000 words long, you might get a rejection before anyone has even read the first line of the first chapter because that kind of length for that kind of story just isn’t a viable option for them. Conversely, if you state that you have an epic tale of love and revenge, set in the last century, which follows several generations of the same family, the editor would balk at a paltry 75,000 words.
In other words, think about the genre you are writing, think about the story itself, and know what kind of book you’re writing. Can it be told in that reasonable amount of words?
Chapter lengthsWriters soon learn that there are no particular set rules when it comes to writing and chapter lengths fall into this area.
New writers tend to assume that a chapter must be a certain set length in order to maintain the average novel length of around 80,000 – 95,000 words, but in truth, chapters can be as long or as short as you need them to be. There is no formula. You don’t have to pick a number like 80,000 and then divide it by 30 chapters to give you 2500 words a chapter (average).If you have ever read Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ or many Stephen King novels, then you’ll realise that a chapter can be a sentence long. Or just one word. Or it can be 5000 words. Again, like novel length, chapter length is dictated by what is happening in the story, not by the law of averages and applied mathematics. Many books have 40, 50 or sometimes 60 chapters, all varying in length. And it’s the variety of length that counts. They don’t have to coform to any pre-conceived ideas. Every writer is different, so every chapter they write will be different in length.
The only thing you need to apply where chapter lengths and novel lengths are concerned, is common sense.If you think a chapter is far too short for whatever reason, examine it to see why. It may be you simply haven’t included enough description. If your chapter seems to go on and on...again look at it to see if it is overly long - you risk boring your reader or losing their attention if it doesn’t sensibly move to the next chapter.
If there was such a thing as an average chapter, it would probably be around 2500 words. Or you could say 10 x A4 sheets, because this also acts as a visual prompt for some people.There are no hard and fast rules. It’s all down to the kind of story you are writing, how you tell it, and of course, a touch of common sense.
Next week: Finding balance.