I am working with an author, whose approach is to write her text, approximately divided by indicators where she wants the breaks to be, with the idea that later she and I would improve the breaks and decide, what will the sections become: parts, chapters, sections, etc. This is mostly based on the LaTeX memoir document class which I used to typeset the book.

The book is a science fiction novel, but not purely science fiction. It has elements of a psychological drama and bits of other styles, such as crime and action. The overall volume of the manuscript is around 700 pages and she is planning a sequel or several under the same title with different subtitles. Currently it is divided into 8 chapters and each has from 2 to 10 sections with 8 being most common.

The work is almost complete and I have typeset it for the time being as chapters and sections, but now we both are debating, whether our chapters look rather like parts, and our sections should be chapters. The only problem is that early in the manuscript the chapters are much shorter, and increase in length as the text goes.

The chapters currently contain hugely different locations as the plot moves across the book's universe. The sections contain more of a high-level topic as the plot develops within one location. We are kind of content with this sectioning and are not necessarily looking to change it - we are only looking for any well-articulated and commonly accepted reasons to improve what we have.

We are aware of this question and agree with both answers; however, they are more than 6 years old. Are there any commonly accepted guidelines for choosing parts vs chapters vs sections for the work described above and where could we read about it?

  • 3
    Why is it a problem that the answers are 6 years old? If I remember correctly, even the Iliad is divided into chapters (so you can skip the infamous ship's catalog!), and the problem space and format has not changed much since than.
    – pipe
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 11:43

6 Answers 6


It sounds like the divisions emerged organically and intrinsically from the story – that's how it should be. Don't worry that some are long and some are short. That's not a flaw.

Forcing the story to fit a rigid, arbitrary amount of pages – like a screenplay that must introduce pre-requisite conflicts at "percentages" of running time to fit cinema turnover schedules or TV commercial breaks – is much likelier to lead to narrative flaws, even if clever writers are good at constructing stories that make such contrived "conflict beats" seem natural.

Structure should fit the story, not the other way around

Book chapters are not TV episodes. Novels are not Hollywood screenplays (hopefully). Most readers will not conform their reading sessions to these structures, the way it would work with timed-media where viewers are passive to external commercial forces like distribution and opening weekend box office returns. Sure, novels can be structured this way – like a movie or TV episode – but that only makes sense if the goal is to "dumb it down" for readers programmed by mass-media entertainment, or if the author hopes to sell the novel as a treatment for Hollywood. Novels are more often about characters and ideas, movies are about action and conflict. In timed-media, character development and ideas are secondary to pacing. That's not right or wrong, it's just a different narrative medium.

Chapters denote character turns and story progression

I would call the shorter divisions "chapters" – although there is no obligation to number them or label them.

Since they emerge from the story, rather than the other way around, it's likely the author is using the divisions to punctuate character "turns" and story development, not contrived conflicts aimed at the easily bored, impatient attention spans of passive viewers. Conflict-narratives are made more complicated, and resolved, within a set conflict-arc. Character narratives are not so neat, and in most cases rich personalities do not "solve" their flaws with a pat psychological self-realization at the midway point, or a simple conflict resolution at the top of Act 3.

A chapter might be short because that's where the emphasis of change needs to be. Character turns are often subtle and incomplete, so a non-diegetic chapter break can can be a narrative tool to cue the reader that something significant has occurred, like a pregnant pause or a fade to black. They have a moment to stop and consider what has just happened.

Sections are bottlenecks

I would call the longer divisions "sections" but again there's no obligation to label them at all.

Since they (roughly?) reflect locations, and the story is about world-hopping, it makes sense to name these longer sections after their locations. It gives a feeling of importance to the structure, like a point of no return. Characters cannot go back and "fix" an earlier conflict on another planet, that opportunity has passed. The story moves on and leaves certain elements and story threads behind. A tonal shift, or re-focusing of the story (characters and goals) seems likely at these bottlenecks. For the reader it's a signal that everything has changed as a new phase begins.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a very clear example. It breaks its story into "chapters" that progress the character and conflict, and "parts" that are clearly labeled and are profoundly different in tone, cast of characters, and story goals.


Call the shorter divisions "chapters" and allow the book to present those emphasis markers where necessary.

Name the longer sections after the planets – or a similar neutral/factual term that signals the last "world" has been left behind and a new one begins.

  • 1
    Hi wetcircuit, i don't understand part of your answer but it's not germane to this stack. I've created a question about it on Movies, I hope you'll take a look. Commented May 12, 2019 at 21:19
  • 1
    This answer feels a little bit rude towards TV / movie viewers, and I don't think this adds anything to the answer. Commented May 13, 2019 at 8:45

Short answer: break where it makes sense.

Some points at which breaks are traditionally made or ways to define breaks include:

  • change of site, the place the action is taking place changes.

  • change in POV character, someone different starts telling the narrative.

  • change in auxiliary characters, the people the narrator is interacting with changes.

The actual length of any given section of the story isn't that important as long as the break points make sense, some chapters may be longer or shorter and chapters may extend or shorten as the narrative progresses. Unless you're looking at a subgenre like the 50 word story then word count, whether as a whole or any particular division, shouldn't be a primary concern—telling the story is the main thing.


There are major works of SF that follow a structure like that. David Brin’s The Uplift War is the first example to come to mind. It’s divided into seven parts (each of which jumps forward in time to a new phase of the war) with 111 chapters, each of which is named after its viewpoint character and about six pages long on average. (It’s part of a series written in the same style.) Another variant I’ve seen is to insert section or chapter breaks headed by the location, or location and time.

A number of “classic” SF novels are divided into two or three “Books” (other than the volumes printed and sold). For example, the novel Dune is divided into Books I–III and Lord of the Rings into six “Books,” so that each volume of the trilogy was divided in half. Tolkien, a scholar of Medieval England, was following the conceit that he was translating a collection of a multi-volume work, and might have been trying to evoke the sense of ancient works written on scrolls, which are shorter than a modern volume and usually printed that way today. This device allowed Tolkien to use a parallel story structure for the second and third volumes. The break in the middle of The Fellowship of the Ring instead marked a major turning-point in the story, where the main characters stopped running for their lives and learned about their mission. Frank Herbert had read and lifted several terms and lines from The Sabres of Paradise. While I don’t know if it also inspired any of the story structure, this source of his did have three parts.

A “Part” or “Book” containing multiple chapters usually represents a major shift, like a new stage of the main character's life, a jump in time, a change in viewpoint character, a change of setting, or a switch to a parallel plotline. If one picks up where the other left off, it’s probably a chapter.

Chapters and parts don’t need to be close to each other in length.

Numbered or named sections would be more unusual, the memoir class has commands to typeset them “by just leaving a blank line or two between a pair of paragraphs, or there might be some decorative item like three or four asterisks, or a fleuron or two,” (according to the manual). That would be more conventional in a novel.


I understand you have short and long chapters.

How about splitting the longer ones into several smaller chapters?

The only rules I can come up with for chapters are:

  • The reader uses them as a "reading unit" so they should probably be about equal in size and not too long (but I've seen books with basically one chapter per page...)
  • The reader might put the book down when having finished one chapter. So you might want to make sure the chapter ends on a point where the story is interesting enough to get the reader to come back the next day.

Apart from that, I don't think anything says a chapter have to look in a special way.

I've seen authors switching POV in the middle of a chapter, or keeping a POV per chapter, or having many chapters in one POV followed by one chapter with many POVs, or jumping back in time in the middle of a chapter, or having a separate chapter for a flashback. The same goes for settings and plots.

The division of a text into chapters is probably one of the things in writing that has least rules of all.

This is especially true with regards to story structure and dramaturgy. Your division of the story into chapters will almost definitely not affect the overall structure and story arc. Unless you move chapters around...

You could almost think of chapters as the packages your new IKEA furniture comes in. You rip it apart and put it together in your living room, regardless of if it comes in one, or five packages.

Your reader will do the same with your chapters and build your story in their mind if it's in one or 50 chapters.

I was about to say, parts have more logic to them, but when I picked an example I wanted to use, it turned out, there wasn't that much logic there. ("The Passage" by Justin Cronin, I thought it was divided into parts separated by time jumps, but I don't think so—if I could just find that book and verify that...)

Or, as in for instance "The Cloud Atlas", where parts are an important element of the structure. Each part contains one half of a completely different type of story in that book.

Parts pretty much follow the same logic, or lack thereof, as chapters. Maybe, because they are optional, a reader might want them to have a more logical reason to be there than chapters.

I've sometimes experimented with putting an act in a part each, but I don't think it's needed. In fact, it could seem blatant and make the reader aware that you are throwing acts at them.


Your first step is to decide on the levels of division. What is a first level division, a second level division, etc.? Once you've done that, you need to decide what to call them. You have many options here, as other answers have shown. The “read in one sitting” sections should probably be called chapters. Chapter subdivisions probably don’t need to be named at all: you can have a fancy divider (this is traditional), or perhaps just a small gap between paragraphs, which seems to be more common these days.

The larger sections, comprising a few chapters each, could reasonably be called books, sections, parts or something else. (Actually, the words section and part are so flexible that they could also be applied to smaller bits, such as chapter subdivisions, if you did wish to name them.)

Another option, which I have not seen covered in other answers, would be to pick a more whimsical naming scheme which matches your story. Are there any terms from your narrative that you could draw on in picking vocabulary. Many sci-fi works speak of a galaxy/universe divided into sectors. Your narrative parts take place in different areas, different sectors. Could you use the word sector to name these divisions? Other examples will occur to you as you look over your narrative.


As the OP mentions LaTeX, this answer uses "part" in the sense of that typesetting system, i.e. as the next bigger hierarchie above "section/chapter" and below "physical book".

While I have not enjoyed a formal writer's education (i.e., university or whatever kind of school writers could go to), I have also never heard of formal "rules" for splitting books or other texts. "Rule" in the sense that there is some kind of prescription how to do it.

But some choices seem to be pretty popular. I.e., splitting simply to avoid paper books too large to be handled (and this is different in different countries; i.e., "The Reality Dysfunction" trilogy had 3 very thick books in some countries, and 2x3=6 in others).

But my favourite aspect is if the author really takes the opportunity to bring an overarching "part" structure into the story itself. For example by doing very large time- or place-based jumps at "part boundaries". For example, "The Earthsea Quartet" or "A Canticle for Leibowith" make very good use of that. Both would very well fit into a standard continuing format (they are short enough to comfortably fit into a single, even thin book), but due to their parts, sometimes with ominous titles, they really set the tone for what is to come.

Also, and this may be old-fashioned, sometimes it is very fitting if as a reader you can see the names of the parts beforehand, alltogether. This would probably not be so wise for the smaller chapter names (if you give them names at all) because it would spoil too much; but for large parts it has a very eerie effect on me to kind of know the scope of what's to come already. Obviously this is not so trivial, but if done right... bliss.

Chapter breaks are a great opportunity to add small pre-faces for each chapter (e.g., Neal Asher used this to absolutely astounding effect in "The Skinner", which I don't remember much of except those little encyclopedia-like bits).

Hope that helps. Aside from that, if you have no preferences either way, I'd simply look at how others do it and derive your own rules (number of pages per chapter etc.).

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