Fiction Q&A: How long is a chapter?

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Q: Is there a rule of thumb for how long chapters in novels should be?

Also, how should I place chapter breaks? I try to put them in when I’m writing, but then I wind up moving things around and having to renumber them. It’s kind of a pain.

A: Yep, it sure is. That’s why I advise not putting in the chapter breaks until you believe the manuscript is done. I say “believe” because in truth it’s not done until it’s published.

As you write, just focus on your scene breaks. Sometimes you will have a scene with a great cliffhanger that is really obviously the place for a chapter break. In that case, put a note in your manuscript like “chapter break here” and then keep going.

Once you’ve finished all your writing and editing and you’re polishing the format up for submission to agents and editors, go though the manuscript and start placing chapter breaks.

I recommend placing a break every 15 pages, give or take 5 pages. So go to page 15, then look before and after that point to find a scene break. You want a scene that ends with a hook. Doesn’t have to be a full-blown cliffhanger, just a point where there’s some tension. You might place this at page 13. Then add 15 pages to that, which will take you to page 28. Repeat the procedure.

You’ll wind up with chapters ranging from 10 to 20 pages long. You can go shorter or longer by a page or two if it feels right for the story, but aim to keep your chapters roughly the same length. It’s not unheard of to put one short chapter amidst a bunch of longer ones, but you’ll need a valid story reason for doing that.

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