There are no rules for writing a novel. That might be the only rule. If you could create a template for writing the “perfect” novel, everyone would do it, and a “perfect” novel would be pointless. We can all do it, so who cares?
Writing is a skill you can improve on but never really master. You’re never finished. There’s new things to learn, and new things to try out. That’s what makes the process so interesting. If I told you a “rule” that you should stick to in your novel, you could easily point me in the direction of any number of literary masterpieces that don’t adhere to that rule, therefore rendering the rule irrelevant.
So I’m not in the rules business.
You know that a “but…” Is coming now, don’t you? Okay, here it is:
There are certain things that many writers do, that tend to come up multiple times in multiple successful contemporary popular novels. I were to list ten of them, it’d probably be that Writer X does 8 of these, Writer Y does 8 and Writer Z does 9 of them. They don’t all do exactly the same things, but certain things tend to crossover more often that not. Again, that doesn’t make any of these “features” rules, it’s just interesting to know what they are, and why they’re so common.
One of these has to be chapter lengths.
Again, it’s not a rule. And you can break it as often as you want: maybe even all the time. But generally, and I speak for every book I’ve written when I say this: consistency for chapter length is important.
You can write a book that has wildly different chapter lengths, and it could be a masterpiece. Absolutely. People have done that and it’s totally worked.
But more often than not, a feature in most modern authors novels, in most books they ever write, is the presence of chapters that are roughly about as long as each other.
Why do so many of us do this?
I have to admit, I always did it fairly subconsciously when I was starting out. It just felt right. Like pretty much all writers, I’m a reader, and it was what everyone else did. I didn’t knowingly think “ah, I need to make sure my chapters are about the same sort of length throughout”, but I started doing it anyway.
The convention is probably for your readers more than you. They might be reading a few chapters in bed and ask themselves “I’m a little tired, shall I go one more chapter?”, or are on the subway thinking “I’m only four stops away from work, do I have enough time to squeeze another chapter in this book I’m enjoying before I get off?”
If they try and end up locked in a chapter that’s suddenly five-times longer than any chapter that’s been in the book so far, they’ll be pissed off. And you’ll lose them. That’s bad.
If you’ve got a 100,000 word novel with 25 chapters, then I personally think it’s a good idea that each chapter is roughly between 3,500 to 4,500 words. Sometimes you’ll have a 5,500 word chapter (one or two maybe), or sometimes a shorter 2,500 word chapter. But generally about 4,000 words would probably keep your readers happy.
Some have asked about the length of chapters for modern popular thrillers: they’re usually short, right?
Well not really. I think we’re getting into an area that has no rules. It’s just personal preference. And it can vary book to book. Lee Child will write a Jack Reacher thriller set over a couple of weeks with 120,000 words and 16 chapters. The very next year, another Jack Reacher novel comes out. Same style, roughly same 120,000 words or so, set over a couple of weeks. But 76 chapters. It’s just what feels right.
But those chapters in any given one of Lee Child’s books are roughly the same length as each other.
Me, personally, I think that an action thriller set over a day or two with lots of big, huge stakes action works with small, pacy, breathless chapters. A thriller set over weeks and without the high-end concept, (maybe more of a life-and death situation for the players involved), works with fewer, longer chapters.
But this isn’t a rule. It’s my preference. And I’m bound to change that up at any time.