“EXACTLY” HOW LONG A CHAPTER SHOULD BE

I’ve been looking at a lot of self-published books again lately, and not from clients but books that have already been published by people I don’t know. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of these books have a large number of short chapters. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have written books (like the Watercourse Trilogy) with lots and lots of short chapters, and others (like Annihilation) with fewer longer chapters. I’m also currently working my way through Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star, which has incredibly long chapters. I read the whole Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green, too, which also had immensely long chapters. In both cases, though I really like the books, the chapters did seem way too long to me.

So where’s the sweet spot?

After tackling the myth of the 300,000 word fantasy, and doing a bunch of counting of the number of words in sentences and the number of sentences in a paragraph, it seems as though the length of a chapter is my final numerical frontier.

When I was at Wizards of the Coast and occasionally had to fend off accusations that what we published was “formulaic” I used to jokingly threaten that I was going to find out how many words the average American read per minute and compare that to the number of minutes the average American took to complete a bowel movement and use that to determine the perfect length for a chapter.

Okay, so, TMI, probably, but I get an awful lot of my non-work reading done while, let’s say . . . multitasking.

I’m not prepared to say I share that with most American readers, but I have sufficient anecdotal evidence to indicate that I’m not alone in that practice.

So, then, this begs the question: Is there some validity in that premise, whether or not it began as a joke?

Finally, I couldn’t resist it any longer and had to start Googling in search of statistics. After a much less than remotely exhaustive period of research I was unable to find any sort of authoritative statistic for the duration of the average American bowel movement. I see this as a failure of the Information Age, but for purposes of our discussion here, I’ll fall back on anecdotal information that ranges from five to twenty minutes. This comes out to an average of twelve and a half minutes for one poop.

The average American, according to slightly better statistics, reads approximately two hundred words per minute.

So I did the math:

 

200 words per minute x 12.5 minutes = 2500 words read per poop

 

Therefore, we can conclude that the precisely perfect length for a chapter is 2500 words.

Problem solved.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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7 Responses to “EXACTLY” HOW LONG A CHAPTER SHOULD BE

  1. abuzzinid says:

    Perfect! A solution worthy of Chuck Wendig.

  2. Stephen Wolf says:

    Would it be wrong to say that’s a ‘crappy’ post? Haha. Funny how the things we tease about can become interesting topics. The concept of appropriate chapter length depends a lot, I think, on style. I agree there is a fine line between chapters that are too long or too short. Shortness interferes with the flow, I feel. Lengthiness can make it seem like there’s no end in sight. I prefer when a solid scene is contained within a chapter, or if it’s a long scene, then with an appropriate break in the middle. Some authors have told me to always end on a cliffhanger so the reader wants to keep reading, and while I understand the psychology behind that, I don’t always think it works. As you mentioned, writing shouldn’t be seen as formulaic, but a representative flow. Great post! Thanks!

  3. Craig says:

    “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
    – John Maynard Keynes

  4. Kameron says:

    A very timely topic, as I was deciding today whether to move a scene at the end of one chapter to the start of another because the current chapter was feeling rather long. I guess I can test it out on my next bathroom break.😉

  5. I’m speechless…almost, but thanks for the word count average.

  6. Pingback: “EXACTLY” HOW LONG A CHAPTER SHOULD BE, PART 2 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. JakeAStrife says:

    You know it’s very funny… I have a formula where I aspire to write a book to 100,000 words, 40 chapters, and 2,500 words per chapter. Then I saw your post about 2,500 words in a chapter! I feel like I’ve chosen the right formula!!! Hahaha

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