In this article we’re going to talk about narrative non-fiction, specifically memoirs and autobiographies. But, when it comes to telling your story, there’s not much difference between novels and autobiographies…
In both cases you want to keep your reader interested in the story you’re telling. Of course, the easiest way to keep readers interested is to tell them an involving, surprising, and exciting story. But any story can be made more interesting in the telling. So the question of ‘how long should a chapter in a book be?’ applies pretty equally to novels and autobiographies.
Get your chapter lengths right, and your book will be easier and more interesting to read, as we’ll see…
What are chapters for?
There have been some notable books written without chapters, but they’re in a minority. (We’ll look at one of them a bit later.)
Even in very short books, a chapter break provides a necessary pause in the progress of the story you’re telling.
What else can chapters do for your story?
- A new chapter may denote a change of scene, or perspective in a book.
- A chapter end may signify the culmination of a sequence of events, or a part of the narrative.
- A new chapter may signal a change in of timeline in the narrative.
- Chapters also give readers important points to stop, and gather their thoughts about what they’ve read.
- If your book is divided into too few chapters, the experience of reading can feel a bit onerous, so a chapter break effectively gives your reader permission to put the book down for a bit.
Moving from one chapter to another helps the reader to prepare for the possibility of something different. And that gives you licence to vary the tone and approach of your writing without having to explain it in the narrative.
You can jump from a reflective chapter to something more upbeat, or vice versa. You can jump from childhood to adult life. Or even from one point of view to another. If you tried to do any of those things within a chapter, it could easily disorient your readers.
Of course, you don’t need to break for a new chapter every time the scene in your story changes. There will probably be times when you need to jump from scene to scene quite rapidly, but if all of those little scenes are part of the same strand of story, try to contain them within the same chapter.
Typically, how long is a book chapter?
We’ve seen that there are no hard and fast rules determining how long a chapter should be, but we can look at the average length of a chapter across a number of books to get a sense of what you might want to aim for.
The general consensus is that anything under 1,000 words is very short, and that something between 1,500 and 5,000 words is optimal. Many readers were outraged upon reading Donna Tart’s debut novel, The Secret History, when they realised the 600+ pages were divided into just eight chapters! It doesn’t matter what you’re reading, waiting 75+ pages for a change of chapters can feel like a bit of a slog!
Here are a few more examples to show the average length of a chapter in some more books:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood comes in at an average chapter length of 2,100 words.
George Orwell’s 1984 comes in at an average chapter length of 3,700 words.
How long is a chapter in a short book versus how long is a chapter in a long book? Is there a difference?
Looking at some of the books I’ve worked on recently to give you my take on the average length of a chapter shows there’s an important distinction to be made between the average length of a chapter in a short book versus the average length of a chapter in a long book…
I’ve worked on many different lengths of books, and I think it’s fair to flex the ‘rules’ depending on the length of the book. If you’re writing a memoir or short autobiography – anything under 20,000 words – then I think it’s perfectly acceptable to write shorter chapters.
Shorter books aren’t trying to present a story in full, but a snapshot version. So the question ‘how long should a chapter in a book be?’ can be dictated by the total length of the manuscript.
In the shortest book I’ve worked on recently, the author wanted to keep things concise. The average length of a chapter for his 23,000 word manuscript was 1,935 words.
In a mid-length memoir I worked on – of just over 33,000 words – the average length of a chapter was just under 2,600 words.
A longer length autobiography of 65,000 words came in with average chapter lengths of 4,280 words.
So, in each case, the length of the book had a very clear impact on the average length of a chapter.
When you’re considering how long should a book chapter be, think about the rhythm of reading
As a reader, settling into a new chapter feels significant. Consciously or not, you prepare for a change of emphasis or setting. You just need to reset your expectations, adjust for the differences, and then you can be carried along for the ride. But if you feel like you’re recalibrating your expectations too often because there are too many chapters, it can make the reading experience feel choppy and unfocussed.
As a writer, medium and longer length chapters give your writing some room to breathe. It allows you to describe how events unfolded in your life at a more measured pace.
The rhythm of a book is important. It’s one of the things that makes reading pleasurable. Using a variety of chapter lengths will help you settle into a nice rhythm. If you get the balance right, your autobiography will flow in the right way. Like a piece of music, it will ebb and flow. The chapter breaks will help to punctuate the story with moments of tension and release. And the rhythm of the book will accentuate the story you’re telling.
How long are chapters? How long are people’s attention spans?
When I was younger, I used to enjoy lots of short chapters. I liked that sense of a book zipping by, as I tore through another two-page chapter in a few minutes.
In today’s fast-paced world, shorter chapters may just be more fashionable – and more relevant – than ever.
People’s attention spans have shortened. We’re all so used to taking on information and entertainment in bite-sized chunks. That’s one of the reasons why this article is broken up into so many sub-headings, so you can skip from one subject to the next in search of the answers you want.
Think about your readers and try to give them the kind of book they’d want to read. If you’re writing for an audience of family and friends, you can imagine them sitting down to read your autobiography in comfort. You can afford to use longer chapter lengths.
If you’re writing a book for a wider audience, you might have to imagine them reading your book in quick bursts – a bit on the train, a bit over lunch, a bit before bed, and so on. For those readers, shorter chapter lengths are a definite advantage. It helps them feel like they’re getting a complete part of your story without any compromises.
How long should a book chapter be when you’re dealing with difficult material?
Cormac McCarthy dispensed with chapters altogether in The Road. He understood how chapter breaks lighten mounting tension, and give the reader an opportunity to pause and take stock. But he didn’t want to alleviate the tension one iota. By doing away with chapters altogether, it added to the gruelling, attritional feel of the story.
If you’re dealing with a particularly sensitive or difficult event in your life story, it probably makes sense to try and address it in one chapter. Then you can have a chapter break, take a deep breath (and allow your reader to do the same) before moving on in a different direction.
But remember that readers can get fatigued. Overly long chapters may inspire your readers to flick forward a few pages to see how long they’ve got left to go. So, if you can’t deal with those sensitive subjects in one medium-length chapter, do use chapter breaks to give your readers a bit of respite.
Should you vary your chapter lengths?
You may have heard that a mix of long and short sentences can help to keep readers engaged. The same may be said of chapter lengths, but only if used with caution.
Don’t alternate long and short chapters for the sake of it. But if an opportunity to preface a longer chapter with a shorter one arises, use it.
Alternating short and long chapters works even better if the chapters are tonally different. A short chapter may act like a prelude or an introduction to another chapter, particularly if it helps to subvert expectations.
For example, if you’re writing about a disastrous wedding day – and I hope you’ve got over the disappointment now! – then you might want to presage it with a shorter chapter about the day before the wedding. If the pre-wedding day was perfect in every way, playing on the contrast will make it easier for you to illustrate the emotion you felt. Your readers will find it easier to relate to your experience, and feel some of what you felt.
You’ll lull them into a false sense of security as one chapter ends with you falling into a restful, contented sleep, looking forward to your wedding day. But when the next chapter opens on your wedding day with the house full of smoke, your readers will be suitably aghast.
One of the most demanding things you’ll do as an autobiography writer is to extract drama from real-life situations. So, when you find some opportunity to draw out the drama or pathos, using contrasts in tone and chapter length can help you make your book more entertaining to read.
Try and make your chapters feel like they belong in that sequence
In an autobiography or memoir, it’s important to give your readers a sense of flow in your writing. Some books can be read in any order – which is an interesting technique if you can pull it off right – but memoirs and autobiographies benefit from feeling as if they have been carefully written to make the most of their chronological or thematic structure.
Writing in sequence doesn’t mean you have to write in a beginning-to-end order, or in a strict chronology, just that the chapters should flow together in some appropriate or meaningful way.
If you jump backwards or forwards in time in your narrative, you want your readers to understand that you’ve chosen to do that; it’s not a result of haphazard planning on your part.
You can even use your chapter lengths to help you. Let’s say you’ve chosen to write an autobiography that only ever touches on some of the bad things that have happened in your life. Perhaps you’d use very short chapters for these sequences, and always follow them with some of the more uplifting moments in your story.
Readers will soon see the significance of the juxtaposition of short and long chapters, and it will help them understand your book – and your journey – much better.
What does your next chapter have in store for you?
Perhaps you’ve written your manuscript, but it feels a bit uneven, and needs a bit of an objective edit -complete with suggestions for revised outline and chapters. Or perhaps you’re still at the planning stages and want some help outlining and/or writing your book. Get in touch for editing and ghostwriting advice, and we’ll talk it over…