Google the question “How many chapters should a book have?” and you’re sure to get a lot of wildly different answers.
Some say five to 20 chapters is a good range to aim for. Others say that the ballpark should strictly fall between 10 and 15. Then there are those who say that going past 20 chapters or more is perfectly okay.
For newbie writers who are just starting to write their first book, the variety of opinions on proper chapter count can get quite confusing. Does the number of chapters in a book have a sway on its overall readability? How many chapters is too many? And how many is too little?
Table of Contents
How many chapters should a book have on average?
Let’s get this question out of the way. The answer provided by Google is mostly correct: a single-author book usually has anywhere from five to 20 chapters. Rarely can you find something on Amazon’s or The New York Times’ current bestseller lists that goes beyond 20 chapters.
To illustrate, below is a table of the New York Times’s best sellers in the paperback nonfiction category:
Some popular books and their chapter counts
It’s important to note that the tables above are for recently-published nonfiction books. For fiction, it’s a different story altogether. Building up characters, establishing the environment, pushing the narrative forward- these things take time to develop, thus requiring more chapters.
This is not a hard-and-fast rule, of course. There will always be outliers. A great example of this would be Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass (published in 1871), sequel to the popular Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, which comes in at a relatively measly 12 chapters.
But does it really matter if your book has more than 20 chapters? Or less than five? To answer this question, we must first delve into the anatomy of a book chapter and understand the importance of chapter breaks from the point of view of your readers.
Three important reasons why writers should care about chapters
A chapter, in its simplest definition, is just a break in a long piece of text. It chops the text down into more digestible pieces for easier reading. Imagine slogging through a gargantuan book with no chapters whatsoever- it’ll be like doing an hours-long workout under the hot sun without a single water or bathroom break.
No matter how enticing and captivating your story might be, your readers just don’t have the superhuman energy to read and process everything in one sitting.
But providing a visual stopping point is not the only thing a chapter does for a reader. Here are some more reasons why chapters are important:
1. Chapters mark a clear transition.
In fiction, the beginning of a chapter is where the author can switch focus to another character, or have them placed in a new location. In nonfiction, a new chapter might mean that a new idea or concept is being introduced and explored.
2. Chapters keep your readers hooked.
Chapters are the author’s way of saying “Hey, stop here for a moment. Something new is coming!”
Without chapters, your readers would have to decide by themselves when or where to stop reading. There’s a huge chance that they might stop reading just before a cliffhanger, or just decide to skip important parts of the text altogether. Chapters help you control the reading pace, thus keeping your readers hooked for your book’s most impactful parts.
3. Chapters help readers find specific parts of your book faster.
Readers sometimes re-read parts of a book that they really like. Chapters, aside from the reasons that we mentioned above, also provide a solid structure and framework for a book. If readers want to revisit a particular scene or reread a previous section, they can easily find what they’re looking for by scanning through your book’s table of contents.
Determining factors that affect how many chapters a book should have
We learned that the type of book you’re writing can influence its number of chapters. Fiction requires more, non-fiction requires less.
But the category- fiction or nonfiction- is not the only determinant at work here. There are a multitude of variables to consider that asking for, and working towards, a specific number can be detrimental to the quality of your writing.
You can’t force yourself to write more when you have nothing left to say. In the same vein, you can’t chop off chunks of your work just because someone said that you can’t write anything past 20 chapters.
The situation is like asking someone for a recipe but leaving out essential information on what you’re planning to cook . “How much sugar do I need for a cake,” you might ask your friends. But without giving them any idea on how many people you’re making the cake for, or even, the kind of cake that you want to bake, then you will probably get very disparate answers. Some will say that you’d need only a tablespoon, while others would probably say a cup.
With this recipe analogy in mind, the type of book you’re “cooking” and the people that will consume it (your audience), as well as your own personal tastes and preferences, will ultimately determine the number of chapters that your book will have.
Important points to consider when organizing chapters in your book
Some writers plan chapters early on in the book writing stage. If you’re a plan-first-write-later kind of writer, you might see that chapters just fall naturally into their places in your book outline.
Other writers adopt a more laissez-faire attitude to chapters, deliberately choosing to write the entirety of a text first without thinking about chapter breaks. The sectioning of the text happens later on in the writing process and is done in the areas where a chapter break makes the most sense.
I. Know fully what a chapter is for
The essence of a chapter is this: it’s a logical break in a long piece of text. Good chapters make for good reading. The whole point of a chapter is to provide readers with a breathing space- a chance to pause and process the information that they have just read. It sets the rhythm and tempo for the rest of the book.
Reading a good chapter gives you a sense of satisfaction. It makes you want to read more and more of the book.
II. Learn how to control reading pace using chapters
Sure, you might prefer writing shorter, more frequent, chapters. But your readers might not. This is entirely dependent on the type and length of book that you’re writing. Ten chapters worked for George Orwell’s Animal Farm because the book is just 130 pages long.
If you’re writing a longer book, one short chapter after another might make your readers feel that they are being rushed through your work. And this also works the other way, one long chapter after another might make your writing feel too “slow” to your readers.
III. Fulfill readers’ expectation of chapter count
We have already seen how genres can influence the number of chapters a book has. Another huge determinant in chapter count is your target audience. They are the essential ingredient.
Below is a table of some books written in the personal finance and investment niche that were written from the 1910s up to the present time.
Plotting the number of chapters versus the year of first publication, gives us this graph:
We can notice that the number of chapters for the majority of books published in the 2000s and later rarely go past 15.
While this is not an accurate measure of an audience’s reading habits throughout the years, this can also mean that readers in this niche expect, or prefer, shorter books that don’t have too many chapters. In an era where the main form of media consumption is Tiktok, YouTube and easily-digestible short videos, this makes a lot of sense.
Yes, you can write longer books with a greater number of chapters. But this comes with the risk of alienating a huge number of people who aren’t used to these kinds of longer-form books.
Doing your research on how many chapters should a book have in your niche using Amazon and Google
Researching about other books goes a long way in book writing. Knowing the length and chapter structure of other books that are similar to your own gives you an idea of what your readers will expect from you in terms of content and chapter organization. It provides an effective audience reference point, something that can help you make sense of your current reading market.
So how exactly do you go about doing this kind of research?
If you’re curious about the chapter count in other books- especially books that are in your niche, fear not- it’s a process that won’t take up much of your time. A quick Google and Amazon search job will do the trick! Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Google your niche
Step 2: Search Amazon for the books
Once you have a list of the books that you want to do research on, head on over to Amazon. Type in a title, and then click on its Amazon listing.
Step 3: Look at Amazon preview
If the book is published within the last ten years, chances are that Amazon will provide a preview of its first few pages as well as its table of contents.
Step 4: Search using other websites
Aside from the number of words as well as the number of chapters, the data that you’ll get from doing research on other books in your niche can be extremely helpful to your growth as an author. Not only would you get an idea of what’s popular among your target reading audience, you’ll also be able to gain new insight into how other writers craft their books.
Deciding how many chapters should a book have based on book type
As we’ve mentioned before, what you’re writing will ultimately determine the number of chapters in your book. The ballpark might be five to 25 chapters, but seasoned readers know that a five-chapter book reads differently from an encyclopedic tome of 30 chapters.
Different audiences have different expectations when it comes to the number of chapters. Take for example a novel vs a novella vs a novelette. All three book types have prescribed word lengths. A novelette is around 7,500 words. A novella is 20,000 to 50,000 words. Finally, a novel is anything beyond 50,000. The average chapter lengths for these books differ a lot too.
Unless you have a very legitimate reason to do so (and have the necessary creative skill to make it work), there’s no reason for a novella to go past 10 chapters. The ultra short chapters will just make everything feel too choppy and rushed. The same goes for a novel too- a 100,000 word novel can’t be reasonably divided into just four chapters- it’ll be too unwieldy for an average reader to go through.
Long chapters, short chapters – does length of chapter matter?
A debate as old as time, but a quick answer to this question is that… yes it does. While there is no prescribed formula to follow when it comes to chapter length (we have delved into this topic in-depth in our blog post here), the length of a chapter does impact how your text “feels.”
You should use longer chapters if you want to…
•Develop your characters’ relationships, behaviors, and intentions.
•Provide exposition and do some world-building.
•Build up tension for a more action-packed scene or chapter in a later part of the book.
George R.R. Martin is famous for his detail-filled long chapters. He takes his time explaining in minute detail whatever it is his characters are feeling at any given moment. His books also have lots of pages dedicated solely to vivid descriptions of locations, food, and clothes. It’s like he’s slowly painting scene after scene using words in front of his readers’ eyes.
But long chapters work in Martin’s case because he is writing epic fantasy drama. If you’re writing an action novel, or perhaps a nonfiction book like yours or someone else’s biography, long, leisurely chapters can bore and turn off a lot of readers.
You should use shorter chapters if…
•You want to write an action or suspense scene- anything that you want your reader to read at a fast pace.
•You’re writing something that naturally needs short chapters- like a short book or a collection of personal essays.
“Should all chapters be of the same length”, you might ask as a newbie author. It’s important to know that a chapter should be as long as you need it to be. Some books have fairly uniform chapters, while there are others that have different chapter lengths. A long chapter can be followed immediately with an extremely short one. This is something that some writers do for creative effect.
The possibilities are endless. But mostly it all boils down to personal preference and your own style.
One of the most influential books in the world is five chapters long.
First published in 1918, the book is titled “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk. It was intended as a writing style guide for Strunk’s English writing students at Cornell University.
So effective was Strunk’s often-humorous lessons on concise writing that the publishing company Macmillan later commissioned his former student E.B. White to expand and modernize the text. Hence why White’s name is appended as author to modern editions of the book.
It’s mind-boggling how a short volume with just five chapters managed to shape several generations of writers. More than a century later, The Elements of Style is still helping people transform their clumsy essays into beautiful, elegant prose.
So don’t stress yourself too much on thinking about how many chapters you should be putting in your book, or on how many words a chapter should be, and on any other such technicalities. Your book’s longevity does not depend on word or chapter count. What’s important is that you are able to get your point across to your readers, and give them an enriching reading experience that they will enjoy and learn from.