7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters

7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters

Scenes vs. ChaptersA chapter is a chapter and a scene is a scene. Or are they? What’s the differences between scenes vs. chapters? Are they ever the same thing? Must a chapter always be a complete scene? Or must a scene always be a chapter? What about scene breaks and chapter breaks? Is there a difference?

These are all questions I receive regularly from writers, and they’re all good questions with surprisingly simple answers.

The shortest and simplest answer to all of these questions is: yes, scenes and chapters are different, with very different structural roles to play within your story.

Let’s take a look at five important questions about scenes vs. chapters, which will help you better understand and control your narrative.

1. Why Do Authors Have Trouble Differentiating Scenes vs. Chapters?

First of all, let’s consider why scenes vs. chapters is even a big question at all.

Mostly, it’s because chapters are obvious and scenes aren’t. As writers, we all start out as readers, and to readers, the concept of chapters is very obvious, very visual. On its surface, a book seems to be divided into chapters, right? Scenes, then, are just smaller structural integers within the chapters.

But then, when you start learning about scene structure, you realize there’s actually a whole lot more to scenes than you thought—and a whole lot less to chapters. Nobody ever talks about “chapter structure” after all.

Turns out it’s the comparatively invisible scene that is the far more important structural unit within a story than is the obvious chapter. At first glance, that seems counter-intuitive, and that’s what trips writers up in understanding the unequal importance of scenes vs. chapters.

2. What’s the Difference Between Scenes vs. Chapters?

So what is the difference between scenes vs. chapters?

Scenes are very specific structural building blocks within your story. Each scene is made up of six distinct parts (see below), all of which are necessary in order for each scene to build into the following one to create a seamless narrative. Scene divisions are non-negotiable.

Chapters, on the other hand, are completely arbitrary divisions within a book. It’s true they do impose order upon a novel—and, as a result, a certain sense of structure. But, on the story level, they actually have nothing whatsoever to do with structure.

Chapter divisions are more about pacing than anything else. You might write a book with no chapter divisions (such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead) or a humongous fantasy novel with only nine chapters (such as Sergei and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar) or one with chapters of only a single sentence (such as the notorious “Rinse” in Stephen King’s authorial nightmare Misery).

Gilead Marilynn Robinson The Scar Sergei Marina Dyachenko Misery Stephen King

Chapters can be any length—from the entirety of the book to a single word.

In short, scenes are logical decisions; chapters are creative decisions.

3.What Must a Good Scene Accomplish?

For the moment, let us consider scenes and chapters separately to understand what each is responsible for accomplishing within your story.

Because scenes are ultimately much more complicated and much more important than chapters, they can be the more difficult of the two for writers to initially get their heads around. I’ve written extensively about scene structure in this series and in my book Structuring Your Novel, but here’s a crash course in good scene structure.

First off, remember scene structure has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with chapter divisions. (More on that in a bit.) The scene is always a complete unit unto itself, regardless how long or short it turns out to be. What’s important in designing or identifying a scene is making sure the following six parts are all present.

We start by dividing each scene into two parts: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). We then further divide each of those halves into three more pieces each:

Scene

1. Goal (the protagonist or POV character sets out to accomplish or gain something).

2. Conflict (en route to his goal, his efforts are blocked by an obstacle of some type).

3. Disaster (the character’s attempt to gain his goal is at least partially stymied, forcing him to move forward on the diagonal, instead of rushing straight ahead through the plot).

Sequel

4. Reaction (the character must then react, however briefly or lengthily, to the previous disaster—this is where the vast majority of character development will take place).

5. Dilemma (as the result of the disaster, the character is confronted with a new complication or dilemma in his attempt to reach his main story goal).

6. Decision (the character comes to a decision about how best to act, prompting a new goal in the next scene).

And then the cycle endlessly repeats throughout the story.

Each scene is a domino. When set up correctly, scenes create a seamless line of cause and effect that almost effortlessly powers your entire plot.

4. What Must a Good Chapter Accomplish?

Good book chapters have two primary roles:

1. Chapters Control Pacing

Chapters create a sense of rhythm within the story. Depending on the length of each chapter, this rhythm will either speed or slow the pacing.

Shorter chapters create faster pacing—which is why thriller authors such as James Patterson often opt for hundreds of chapters, some of which are no longer than a page.

Longer chapters, in turn, slow the pacing. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series recreates the leisurely, often charmingly indulgent style of early 19th-century literature. One of O’Brian’s more obvious techniques in achieving this pacing is his employment of very long chapters, some of which require an hour or more to read.

Maximum Ride James Patterson Master and Commander Patrick O'Brian

Shorter chapters are often used in thrillers to achieve faster pacing, while more leisurely books implement longer chapters to slow the pacing.

It’s true scene length also plays a role in pacing, but not to nearly the same extent as chapter length. Because chapters are much more obvious to readers (rather like commercial breaks in a TV show), they exercise much more blatant control over the reading experience.

2. Chapters Keep Readers Reading

The second role of the chapter is to create an experience that convinces readers to keep reading. Even to dedicated readers, books are undeniably a large time commitment. There’s never any guarantee readers will actually make it through your entire book—which means it falls to you to convince them to keep reading.

Chapters are the key to influencing readers into the proper mindset to continue turning pages. The control chapters exercise over pacing plays a role in this. Even more importantly, however, is the opportunity each chapter ending and beginning offers to hook readers back into the story.

Just as you have to hook readers with the beginning of the book, you have to re-hook them throughout the book. You’ll do this through reveals, scene disasters, and plot twists. But you’ll also do it twice within every chapter—at the beginning and at the end. Done skillfully enough, you might even convince readers to read straight through without ever putting the book down.

5. Does Every Scene Have to Be a Chapter?

Now that you understand the important differences between scenes vs. chapters, how do you fit the two of them together within the overall scheme of the narrative? Stephen King and James Patterson aside, is it ideal to divide the story into chapters based upon each scene’s structure? Should each complete scene be a chapter unto itself?

There is no “right” answer to this. Can a scene be a full chapter? Definitely. Does it have to be? Not at all.

Once again, the defining attributes of a scene have nothing to do with how many chapter breaks break it up. Depending on the needs of your story, the length of your scene, and your goals for the pacing, you may write a scene/sequel that spans multiple chapters.

6. Does Every Chapter Have to Be a Scene?

By the same token, not every chapter has to contain a whole scene. A chapter might contain nothing more than a single thought, as does William Faulkner’s one-sentence chapter in As I Lay Dying.

As I Lay Dying Vardaman William Faulkner My Mother Is a Fish

Or it might contain only a single part of a scene’s overall structure, such as, say, the character’s reaction to a previous disaster.

That said, my personal favorite approach to dividing scenes into chapters is to actually use the chapter break to divide the scene in half. I like to end chapters with the Scene Disaster, since it usually provides an excellent what’s-gonna-happen hook to keep readers reading.

This then allows me to open the following chapter with the Sequel Reaction, in which the characters respond to whatever just happened. I finish out that scene’s structure, then begin the next scene halfway through the chapter and end with another Scene Disaster.

The pattern I create looks like this:

Chapter

  • Sequel Reaction
  • Sequel Dilemma
  • Sequel Decision

[scene break]

  • Scene Goal
  • Scene Conflict
  • Scene Disaster

[chapter break]

This isn’t, of course, a hard-and-fast pattern. I’ll abandon it wherever necessary (such as when any part of the scene structure grows too long to be contained within the chapter length I’ve chosen for my story’s pacing). But it’s a good guideline for creating chapters that harmonize well with your scene structure and are primed to perform their most important job of hooking and re-hooking readers.

7. Are There Different Rules for Scene Breaks vs. Chapter Breaks?

Finally, let’s consider the difference between scene breaks and chapter breaks.

A chapter break indicates the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.

A scene breaks indicates a shift of some sort within the middle of a chapter.

There are two types of scene breaks: hard and soft.

What Are Hard Scene Breaks?

Hard breaks are used to indicate a distinct shift within the story. This might include:

  • The beginning of a new structural scene unit.
  • The characters’ moving to a new setting.
  • A large jump forward in time.
  • A new POV narrator.

Hard breaks are usually indicated by a centered triplicate of asterisks or a short line in the middle of the page, between the paragraphs that needing splitting.

Hard Scene Break in Storming by K.M. Weiland

In my historical dieselpunk novel Storming, I used a hard scene break here to indicate a change in time and setting as the protagonist Hitch goes to visit his estranged brother.

What are Soft Scene Breaks?

Soft breaks are often as much as pacing trick as anything else. They serve to indicate a much smaller or less distinct shift within the story. This might include:

  • A minor or inconsequential shift in setting while the main action of the scene continues (e.g., the characters move from an office to the street, where they resume the same conversation).
  • A minor or inconsequential shift in time (e.g., “After they finished eating…”)

Soft breaks are usually indicated by only an extra space between the paragraphs that need splitting.

Soft Scene Break in Storming by K.M. Weiland

I used a soft scene break to skip a small amount of time as my barnstorming pilot protagonist figures out where to land his biplane after his engine dies.

What Are the Rules for Good Scene and Chapter Breaks?

As you can see, scene breaks occur at very specific moments within the story, while chapter breaks can occur just about anywhere you want them to. But the rules for executing both are the same.

Whenever you create a break of any type within your story, you must be aware of the potential for losing your readers’ focus. You combat this by creating solid hooks at each scene or chapter break.

The best way to think of a hook is simply as something that piques readers’ curiosity. Phrase the end of each chapter or scene in a way that creates even the smallest bit of dichotomy. Get readers to wrinkle their brows a little and ask themselves, What does that mean…? And, bang, you’ve got ’em! They’ll keep right on reading, regardless what kind of break they’re looking at.

***

My bet is you’re already instinctively using your chapters and scenes correctly. Don’t let the technical differences confuse you. Master them and claim them, so you can use and harmonize your scenes and chapters to create a seamless and hypnotizing reading experience.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your biggest challenge regarding scenes vs. chapters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. What is your take on the use of subdivisions in chapters? In my last novel, my climax chapter is very long so I used subheadings for the various events in that chapter. Most were individual scenes but all supported what that chapter was all about.

  2. Michael Saltar says:

    Fabulous and informative, as usual. Thank you for bringing my two worlds together: the novel and the screenplay.

  3. Excellent topic and great advice here. I’ve seen books where a chapter is a scene or series of scene from one character’s POV. The next chapter shifts to a different character’s POV. This is a good technique with a thriller featuring two POV characters (Example: Gone Girl). Another technique is to encapsulate a period of time within a chapter. I’ve seen this technique used in sprawling family sagas that take place over one or several generations. As you point out, chapter divisions are really up to the author, but have to make some sort of logical sense. Thanks for this post

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Continuity is really what’s important. As long as you’re setting up a pattern that makes sense for the story, and then sticking with it, it will be a comfortable reading experience for readers.

  4. Another fine discussion. Of course the only way to understand chapters is to understand scenes first, and then make chapter choices based on the right contrast with them.

    About soft scene breaks… I certainly agree that writers should know the difference between them and hard breaks. But giving them a separate punctuation worries me, a lot. Because any unmarked line break that ends up at the top or bottom of a page because almost invisible, which can confuse the reader… and with the rise of ebooks’ too-flexible formatting, it’s harder and harder to be sure that won’t happen.

    So, is that punctuation for soft scene breaks an actual rule from some where? Do you think it should still be used in modern publishing, or is it better to mark soft breaks either like hard breaks or as an extension of the scene?

    • Maybe use an asterisk for a soft break, and a line for a hard break? But then you’re getting into territory where the reader needs a key at the start of the book.

      I tend to mark hard breaks with a line and let the narrative handle soft breaks without any specific punctuation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, you can punctuate most soft breaks with the triple asterisks (or your hard scene break punctuation of choice), and the effect will be just about the same. For the few instances where the hard break doesn’t work for a soft break, you can usually just pull the paragraph up to the previous one and sail on through without any break at all. I’m all for erring on the side of caution.

      • Doug Brower says:

        It actually bothers me that there’s no standard way to indicate a soft scene break in a manuscript. Like Ken says, just leaving a blank line invites an editor to assume there’s a typo. (Just to remind, it’s the editor and the layout engineer who really have to understand what the author intends, not the reader. The reader gets the finished, beautifully laid-out book after the editors and book designers have done their thing.)

        About the best answer I’ve come up with is to start flush left (e.g., no indent) after every break, whether chapter, hard scene or soft scene. And to be careful that every other paragraph is precisely indented as expected.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree. It is rather annoying. I inevitably have a beta reader question my soft breaks as typos–which makes me hesitant to use them.

  5. Most of my problem lately is up until the last year, I’ve had a naturally short style for chapters. In the last year, my chapters have been lengthening. I’m not sure if I’m bloviating more than I need to, or if the book just required it, but it feels weird to have short chapters in the front half of a book, and longer ones in the back half. :p

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are two schools of thought on this. 1) It is generally best to keep chapter length relatively even throughout the story. This helps guide reader expectations for the pacing and the breaks. 2) That said, shortening the chapters toward the end of the book can lend to a nice sense of speed and intensity as you swing into the Climax.

    • Doug Brower says:

      I will say up front that I am pantsing my novel, and I am a total complete amateur. In KM’s terms, the story is developing in my head in scenes (yay!) that map out in one or more chapters. What’s kept me going is a little rule I made up – 10 pages make a chapter. When I get to 10 pages, I’m allowed to tack on a little cliffhanger or something and move on – perhaps to the scene sequel, as KM explains it, or the next scene (as soon I figure out what it is.) If I don’t get to 10, I make myself stop and backfill with description, backstory, dialog or whatever. Some of the best writing happens here, when I have to dig a little deeper – see the scene from another point of view, say, or connect what’s happening with something that took place earlier.

      The point is that the chapters in my first draft are not serving the same purpose as finished chapters in a revised and polished MS. I’ve given up worrying about the pace, which as KM says is one of the big functions of a chapter. Right now, the chapters simply guide and motivate the writing.

  6. Interesting on hard and soft scene breaks. I think I only ever use hard breaks – soft breaks have always been just a fresh paragraph and an opening line that indicates the small shift.

    I was getting worried about your scene/chapter breakdown until I saw what you do with splitting a scene in half across each chapter – then with relief I recognised what I do anyway. Phew.

    I’ll seek out the further info on scenes you mention, since I never mentally labelled any of this stuff before, and it’s good to formalise the process.

    Thanks for the article!
    -Sef

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Like I said at the end of the post, most writers instinctively understand how to balance chapter and scene correctly. I think the whole question of “scenes vs. chapters” arises simply because, once authors start consciously understanding scene structure, it can throw them for a bit, as they try to figure out how that works in regard to chapters. It’s a case of our logical minds getting in the way of our instincts.

  7. Eeek! Just when I think I know something… I realize there’s even more to learn! I guess that’s for many things, though.

    Some thoughts and questions:

    1) I had no idea you could split a scene like that. Like have half of it in one chapter and the next half at the start of the next chapter. That seriously blows my mind. I just never thought about it before!

    2) Question: when you outline, do you make sure you have each of the six parts of a scene for each scene you write? I haven’t done that before but I’m thinking I should. I just finished a (very rough) first draft of a novel and in retrospect, I think some of my scenes are… lacking.

    3) Likewise, when you edit, do you check for the six parts of a scene and make sure they’re all there and in the right order?

    Thanks in advance and sorry for any typos! I’m on my phone right now and autocorrect is crazy sometimes. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, when I start putting together my scene-by-scene outline, I’m always focusing on scene structure and making sure all the pieces are there. This way, the scenes build effortlessly into each other and I always know how to correct slow bits or bits that just don’t seem to fit otherwise.

      Because I’m careful with the scene structure in the outline and the draft, I never have to worry about it in revision.

  8. Amanda Watson says:

    So useful! But can I ask – how do you avoid a ‘start-stop’ with pacing? Action, then pondering? Thank you

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To some extent, you *want* that stop-start pacing, that ebb and flow of action and reaction, cause and effect. However, you definitely want to keep it smooth, so it doesn’t feel jerky or enforced. You want the ebb and flow of scene and sequel to feel organic. To achieve that, you need to listen to your gut. Get deep into your scenes and *feel* them. Do they feel jerky? If so, it’s possible one half of the mix is too long or too short–or, worse, they’re mismatched instead of being two organic pieces of the same whole.

  9. Thanks for the post.

    My understanding of story on the scene level is quite fuzzy. I’m trying not to overthink it but something isn’t clicking somewhere. The examples definitely help though.

    I hadn’t heard of hard and soft scene breaks before so that was helpful. The use of chapters to help with pacing was also a big plus.

    I wish we could do more scene case studies.

    Thx

  10. HonestScribe says:

    My biggest problem with scenes versus chapters: I’m reading late into the night, telling myself “I’ll just finish this chapter.” All’s going well, the author is wrapping up a sequel, then BAM! throws the beginning of a new scene at the end. So much for a reasonable bedtime.

    I’m learning to utilize this page-turning secret in my writing, too. Usually, I would end with the “scene” part pretty well resolved and start the next chapter in the “sequel.” While that’s still my default, I’m attempting to utilize this page-turning secret more effectively.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a problem? :p Honestly, that’s exactly what we’re all striving for with our chapters! Poor readers…

  11. Will have to share this one…

    One question I have for you is do you plan out the chapter-scene structures before you write or does everything just kind of fall into place while you clean up the first draft?

    I could easily see myself breaking a first draft down into an outline and then working on that outline to tweak the chapter structure.

  12. Andrewiswriting says:

    “In short, scenes are logical decisions; chapters are creative decisions.”

    This is awesome, and a brilliant, most informative post. Thanks!

    I think I use Chapters in a similar way to you, ending with the cliffhanger of the disaster (or revelation) before getting to what happened in the next chapter.

    I love the subtlety of hard and soft breaks, I’ve consistently used *** to break my scenes within a chapter. I may have to steal your method and revisit that 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Chapter breaks are fun! It’s always a challenge to end and begin with those organic hooks that lead one into the other.

  13. Now you’ve given “names” to my “obvious” and “less obvious” scene breaks!
    By utilizing chapter-breaks to “split up” scenes, it will make for page-turning reading.
    Create your cliffhanger, your disaster or dilemma, and jump to the next chapter– it makes sense.
    The art is to do it well.
    Thanks, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My brain works so much better when I can “name” things. As soon as I can categorize it, I can understand it.

  14. An excellent way to structure chapter and scene breaks. Thanks K.M. for presenting this little gem in such a clear and concise manner.

  15. Elizabeth Richards says:

    When I write in Scrivner’s I use one “file” per scene. And I try to organize them by book structure so I can keep track of word count in each section. But I find thinking about chapters during the first draft to be…annoying. It feels like it’s too early (at least at my level of experience) to also think about chapter breaks. I was thinking about adding them in the second draft when I have a better feel for pacing, etc. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If that’s you feel about it, then I’d definitely stick with this process. I used to do ignore chapter breaks in the first draft as well. These days I find it more intuitive and organized to divide the scenes into chapters ahead of time (with the understanding, I can flex the breaks as needed during the draft). But it’s really a personal decision.

  16. Another great post. I have one question, though, that originated when I first read your excellent series on scene structure. Can a scene (small c) and its sequel ever be split by the scene or sequel of another Scene? Such as:

    scene a
    scene b
    sequel b
    sequel a

    Thanks!

    Gary

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. And the answer is: definitely yes. As long as all the pieces are there, you can arrange them in just about any intersecting order that feels right.

      • Thanks.

        Keep up the good work! I’m always amazed at your knowledge, professionalism and insights. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who you inspire on a daily basis!

  17. I might go back to my stories and divide them into chapters but how do I do that? Any ideas?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whoops, I see you already discovered the post. 🙂 As for dividing your book into chapters, you pretty much just have to go through and look at the pacing and the beats. Where does a chapter break feel right? Then make sure you’re crafting hooks at the beginning and end of each chapter.

  18. Thanks so much for a great post. I just used your technique of splitting scene and sequel between chapters. It feels good.

    There is a type of scene transition that, I think, wasn’t mentioned. What about the “Later that day…” type of transition? It seems like that’s a soft scene break without the need for an extra line between scenes.

    What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. I have to say it really depends on the specific instance. If the action continues basically uninterrupted from one segment of the scene to the next (e.g., the character talks about going home to get her mail–and then does so), a soft break would probably be fine. But if an entirely new “episode” begins within the narrative, that’s going to require a hard break.

  19. This post has been a great tool in my outlining process for my first novel. Before I began the outlining process I had a vision of where I wanted my story to go but wasn’t really sure how to organize all of my thoughts. Learning more about scenes really helped in the organization process.

    I’m someone who has always loved to learned new things on a daily basis which is what has me coming back to this blog constantly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great to hear you’re enjoying the blog! For me, the entire act of writing is about that lovely dance between the wildness of creativity and the organization of the craft itself. I’m constantly refining it.

  20. Sometimes you can also have a really long scene divided up into two chapters or more, probably best broken up by some sort of cliffhanger, one-liner or a major reveal. This is something I tend to do a lot with climactic action scenes (first chapter includes final build-up, and second chapter includes immediate aftermath).

    As usual though, you take something that is second nature to a lot of writers and delve into details that most of us don’t think of. A good reminder for those of us who don’t usually have trouble separating scenes from chapters, while also helping out those who do. Nice post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one of those writing topics you don’t even have to think about–until you do. I write it more as an answer to those who have already raised the question to themselves than as something we all necessarily have to know.

  21. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M., There is one disaster but it is toward the end. As Leilani and Zane get married. Kaia, Leilani’s identical twin sister gets kidnapped by Ruben and his henchmen. So would you show the character getting kidnapped or tell about it? Ruben takes Kaia to a different location on the fictional planet called Avanaria to the crystal islands-three small island put together. Is the pacing suppose to be fast for a book or slow to move it along for the reader?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the kidnapping takes place when a POV character is present, you’ll want to show it. Fast pacing is generally better for keeping readers’ attention.

  22. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    THank you. I will do that. Right now I am working on my novella. I put that a young girl in the novella has the yellow death or fever and is going to the palace on Elda Lamore Island on planet Avanaria. I did put that Jewel had to find it because the palace is north west of where she is right now.

    I plan on re-doing the map. Did you do your map or did someone do it for you in your dreamlander book?

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  1. […] Weiland answers 7 questions writers have about scenes vs. chapters, and Jami Gold discusses how strengthening stakes does not always mean going […]

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