More on Chapter and Novel Lengths

By far, this subject has proved to be the most popular among writers, so due to popular demand, it’s time to revisit this very relevant subject, which I first wrote about in 2012.

Firstly, I’m going to repeat a snippet of advice I dispensed in the first article and that is 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. The story will dictate how long the novel will be.

But plenty of writers still fret about the length of their chapters, let alone the length of the novel. There is a worry that they might be too long or not long enough, and that perfect ‘Goldilocks’ length just seems hard to pin down, but in truth, it’s not hard at all.

It’s all down to knowing when to stop at a relevant juncture to allow the narrative to breathe and to prepare the reader for the next chapter. The easiest thing to do is to just keep going with story, to get carried away and before you know it your chapter has turned into a mammoth 7,000 words without so much as a breath.

The art of getting chapter lengths right is to write enough to keep the reader entertained, interested, invested and hooked, without the danger of them falling asleep with boredom if the chapter drags on and on. Of course, sometimes chapters can run long because the story arc demands it. But conversely, try not to make chapters too short that the reader loses interest or feels as though the narrative ‘stutters’ and makes them feel short-changed.

Vary Chapter Lengths

Variation is key to getting it right. Some chapters will be short, one or two will be long, and the rest should average out the same length. That’s why variation works so well. But the one thing they should all do is impart information, move the story along and to keep the reader enthralled.

The one thing that chapters should always do is end with a teaser in order to make the reader continue reading. Think of old black and white serials – they always ended on a cliff hanger, which meant the audience were on the edge of their seats desperate to know what happened next. Treat your chapters the same. The reader has to know what happens next, so write the end of the chapter in a way that invites them to carry on reading.

Keep chapter lengths varied - think Goldilocks...not too long, not too short, but just about right.


But what about the novel itself? Are there set novel lengths for different genres?

In truth, they are not largely different from each other. For example, science fiction novels, on the whole, don’t run as long as thriller or some crime novels. But that does not mean to say that you have to keep the word count at a rigid 80,000 words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as the story is good, then there is nothing wrong with a 90,000 + word science fiction novel.

It’s worth noting that publishers and agents don't reject because of word counts, they reject work because it doesn’t fit their genre, the work is too badly written or it just doesn’t work for various reasons.

If you contrast average words counts with something like children and young adult’s fiction, the word counts can vary between 20,000 words to 45,000. Fantasy/saga novels, on the other hand, tend to be a big read – think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

The romance genre tends to run at 70,000 words to 90,000 words (and sometimes fewer words, depending upon the publishing house). It would have to be a very captivating romance story to run beyond 100,000 words.

Average novel counts by the most common genres:-

Children’s and YA: Between 20,000 and 45,000

Fantasy/Saga: Between 80,000 and 110,000

Suspense/Thriller: Between 80,000 and 100,000

Crime/Detective or Noir: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Romance: Between 70,000 and 90,000

Erotica: Between 70,000 and 90,000

Historical: Between 80,000 and 110,000

Literary: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Science Fiction: 80,000 and 90,000

Horror: Between 80,000 and 90,000

Note that these are simple guidelines only. They are not set in stone! They represent averages.

The simple truth is that you should aim for an average word count that falls between 80,000 and 95,000 words because if it spills over 110,000 words and isn’t brilliantly written, the reader may well give up reading and find something better to do. This can happen because writers have a habit of writing far too much of the story and don’t actually know A) when to stop or B) how to edit effectively.

Seasoned writers often write more than is required – deliberately – because they know that during the editing process they will cut upwards of 15% - 25%. It’s very normal for the length of a novel to fluctuate over the entire writing and editing process, which means a book can complete at 85,000 words, swell to 95,000 words after the first few rewrites, then slim down to 90,000 words before finally ending up at 100,000 words. This is quite normal.

The drawback with many writers is that they don’t always know what to edit out and what to leave in, which means they make the fatal mistake of leaving everything in. And that’s why some novels ridiculously inflated with words.

The thing to remember is that novel lengths are not an exact science. When you plan your novel, set yourself an average word count to help guide you. Don’t worry if you go over your goal of, say, 90,000 words and end up with 100,000 words. Sometimes we just need a little bit more than we anticipated in order to edit well and tell the story effectively.

As long as the novel moves the story along, starts in the right place, has a great middle and ends at the right moment, then the finishing word count shouldn’t cause concern. Writers just have to use common sense.

So, where chapter lengths are concerned, remember the following:

  • Be concise. Don’t let it drag on.
  • Move the story along
  • End with by a tease or a statement that makes the reader want to find out more.
  • Vary lengths to keep things interesting.
For novel length, remember the following:

  • Set yourself a word target as a guide.
  • Always write a little more than the target word count to help you with editing – this helps to get rid of the waffle, info dumps, unnecessary scenes and unimportant narrative.
  • Try to stick to guidelines.
  • Remember the Goldilocks rule – not too short, not too long, but just about right.

One final note on this subject – tastes, trends and conventions change from time to time. What is trendy now may change in a few years, so read other novels that are similar to yours, check out their length and look at different publishing houses and their guidelines on various genres.

But most of all...don’t worry so much over your chapter and novel lengths!

Next week: Context – what does it do?


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