My wife is beginning a novel, and she's written four chapters in under six pages. I suggested that she consider using page breaks, or lowercase Roman numbered sections, instead of chapters because a few of her chapters deal with a single event (an accident) and the hours after it (waking up in a hospital).

As well, I find lots of chapters to be excessive in some way. Typically, this comes into play with tables of contents. Moby Dick, for example, has 135 chapters in its table of contents, and that table of contents is daunting to me; I can't use it to recall specific sections with any facility. Ulysses, on the other hand, has 18 chapters (episodes), and I find that I can peruse the table of contents and have a strong conceptual idea of each episode. True, I can recall Moby Dick with the same clarity as Ulysses, but the sheer number of chapters in Moby Dick doesn't seem very functional in aiding the recollection of the material in those chapters—even though those chapters are shorter than the chapters in Ulysses.

I see the argument that this is a matter of preference, but I think that books with over, say, 50 chapters lose the significance of the chapter. I also see that chapters and sections, in many cases, derive organically from the material, but I still feel the need to caution against too many chapters.

So, what is the best way to deal with many chapters so that they maintain some autonomy? Give them titles?

Chapter One "The Sound of the Conch"

Add brief sub-headings beneath the chapter number?

Chapter One In which Maggie regains consciousness and faces the reality of the last 24 hours

Add key elements of the chapter, like Twain does in Huck Finn?

CHAPTER I. Civilizing Huck.—Miss Watson.—Tom Sawyer Waits.

Add a quote that relates to the chapter:

Chapter I The First Turn of the Screw

Mephistopheles: "Was gibt es denn?"

Wagner: "Es wird ein mensch gemacht." --Goethe Faust II

I find that quotes are overdone, and, in longer books, could lose their impact. I'm drawn to short synopses under chapters, but it does sound slightly like a children's story book.

Does anyone have any suggestions about insuring the identity of the chapter in books that have many chapters?

  • 2
    I think this is a discussion/Your Mileage May Vary question as written -- particularly the last paragraph. If you can tweak that to be more concrete (what are the pros and cons of many short chapters? what does a chapter need to have? where should it end?) and less "What are your thoughts?" it can stand. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '13 at 18:51
  • Hi tylerharms. I agree with Lauren that this is too open-ended as written. I'm going to close it; please do edit to focus it more on pros/cons and less on discussion, and then ping a moderator (or flag) so we can consider for re-opening. (Close isn't forever; it's just temporary, so people don't go off and answer the wrong question.) Thanks very much; I think there is a good question in here and I look forward to your update. – Monica Cellio Apr 5 '13 at 19:23
  • 1
    Made some adjustments. Thank you for the input. – tylerharms Apr 5 '13 at 21:35

I think you've mistitled your question. The real question is not How many chapters should I have?, but rather How long should my chapters be?

Four chapters in six pages is probably not the right way to go. Generally, in modern books a chapter runs between 2,000-6,000 words (10-30 typewritten pages in manuscript format), which is roughly the same length as a short story. There are exceptions, of course, and there are some novels that eschew the chapter structure altogether, but this is a good guideline. So my suggestion is that the "chapters" described above should really just be scenes in a single chapter.


Adapt multiple levels of division. What I see as the worst problem is abusing chapters as sections. Get your wife to adapt * ~ * ~ * section breaks with the current frequency of chapters, use chapters much more sparsely, possibly name each, and if that isn't enough, divide the whole thing into 2-4 parts.

The division into parts is clear, memorable and obvious though not very helpful in finding specific places. But with parts, named chapters become entirely meaningful and really help locate points of the story. Meanwhile the sections serve as thread separators, scenes for benefit of the flow. They aren't for locating events but for keeping them distinct.

That is not to say some very short chapters are wrong. Breaking the rule of chapter length and serving a fully featured chapter to present a single paragraph of text will certainly give that paragraph some weight. If the event is the turning point of the whole story, the readers will certainly remember "that special chapter" and it will do the story good. But 130 chapters in a moderately sized book? No. Just no.

  • Sorry for lagging in my response--been wicked busy--but I wanted to clarify something. What do you think about naming parts and chapters? Is that taking it too far? Are too many threads getting crossed? – tylerharms Apr 25 '13 at 10:26
  • @tylerharms: If you have good names for parts, there's nothing wrong about it. Usually coming up with these is rather hard so authors tend to skip that. – SF. Apr 25 '13 at 14:02

It's really completely a matter of personal preference. There is no set length or number of chapters at which it is considered to be too many. I have read books with over 100 chapters and the existence of the chapter remains relevant as a separator.

Additionally, in most cases, none of the chapters have titles. I do agree however, that adding a title to each chapter can help break monotony. Nevertheless, the focus is usually on the content and therefore chapter titles do not always need titles, regardless of the number of chapters there are.

  • 1
    I might also add that sometimes, chapter titles can actually hurt the book in some situations. Depending on the type of book, a title could communicate what the chapter is about, or (on the other end) it could detract from the story. It's highly situational. – JMcAfreak Apr 8 '13 at 20:46
  • I agree about the damaging effect chapter titles can have. It surprises me that Twain would go so far as to list key words to each chapter in the TOC of Huck Finn. I do, however, enjoy single word chapter titles that are based on a salient image from the chapter. – tylerharms Apr 25 '13 at 10:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.