Monday, May 8, 2017

How Long is a Chapter?

A writer on one of the loops I follow recently asked how long a chapter in a mystery should be.

It was a topic that generated a surprising amount of discussion.

Someone cited James Patterson and his two page chapters. Another writer cited PD James, who has long chapters. Still another writer said she wrote until the chapter was done.

For me, it’s a math equation. If I want to write a book that’s 75,000 words long, I need 25 chapters that are 3,000 words long or 30 chapters with 2,500 words. My math teachers, if they’re reading this, are smirking (math—not my strong suit) – after claiming I’d never use math (loudly, repeatedly), her I am.

As important as those simple equations for length is content. A chapter should advance the plot, reveal character, and, in a mystery, offer a clue. A chapter should have an arc just like a novel.

The first chapter of my upcoming release begins with the lines:

There were Mondays—burnt toast, no cream for the coffee, a body in the swimming pool—and there were Mondays.
            This was one of those Mondays.
            The morning began auspiciously enough—golden toast, plenty of cream, no bodies—but it went sideways quickly.

With a few lines, the reader knows poor Ellison is going to find another body. Soon.

At the halfway mark:

            Khaki lay on the Henry’s heinous carpet and stared at the ceiling.
            Well, not stared. She wasn’t actually looking at anything. Not with a bullet hole between her eyes.

Ellison’s problem has arrived. And how. She’ll spend the rest of the chapter dealing with the fall-out. Right up until then end.

            “Mrs. Russell is fine, but there’s been a murder.”
            “What?” Hunter’s bark positively boomed from the phone. “Who?”
            “Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

I am of the opinion that chapters should end with hooks. Hooks so strong the reader must turn the page. This is not the strongest of hooks but I simply couldn’t pass up the chance for the Clue reference.

I rinse and repeat (or multiply) until the book’s as long as it should be.

Julie Mulhern is the USA Today bestselling author of The Country Club Murders. 

She is a Kansas City native who grew up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie. She spends her spare time whipping up gourmet meals for her family, working out at the gym and finding new ways to keep her house spotlessly clean--and she's got an active imagination. Truth is--she's an expert at calling for take-out, she grumbles about walking the dog and the dust bunnies under the bed have grown into dust lions.

Her latest book, Watching the Detectives, releases on May 23rd from Henery Press.


  1. I loved it when Aggie used the Clue reference!

  2. Interesting post. I tend to write short chapters, especially if I'm trying to up the pace (short is a good trick for that). Some of my chapters are 500-750 words. Most are in around the 1000 - 1500 word mark. As a reader, if I'm getting tired and see a long chapter, I'll inevitably put the book down vs. keep on reading. Super long chapters exhaust me as a reader and a writer!

  3. Very interesting and timely post for me. I am working on my first cozy mystery. Right now am just trying to plow through the first draft. I have it broken up into chapters and scenes, but I figure I can move things around after the draft is done as needed with regards to chapter length. Thanks for your thoughts on this topic!

  4. Nicely said, Julie! Now when a newbie author asks me that question, I can refer them to your post instead of stammering and hemming and changing the subject. :-) --kate

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