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. 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?

  2. It’s funny, as far as chapters go, I expressed a very similar bit of insight to my grandma when when we were discussing my current WIP. I was (and still am) very far from mastering the inner workings of scenes, but I still had an idea of what they were—I thought of them as single units of action with a rising action and a climax, just like the larger unit of the novel. And of chapters, I told my grandma that the best practice (in my opinion) was to end the chapter in the middle of a scene. Not too far off from what you’ve got here. Nice to see I’m not *completely* off in my initial assumptions about how to write a novel 🙂

    (As for why include chapters in the first place…I’ve always thought of them as a way to offer readers stopping points when your novel is incredibly long and hard to swallow in one bite. Start and stop them in the middle of scenes, and you don’t have to worry about those readers coming back.)

  3. This is Awesome information. I wrote my entire first novel without ever considering scenes or scene brakes. I think it turned out OK but it could have been way better if I’d known what I was doing 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I am starting my first chapter of my novel and I’m a little confused whether to start with a Sequel Reaction as you do, or start chapter one with the goal. Do your start your book outlines with Sequel Reaction as well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You can start a book with either the goal or the reaction. But if you start with the latter, it should be very brief. You want to get the character into a goal as soon as possible in the first chapter.

  5. Hey K.M.

    I am new here but have a read a lot of bog posts here and love them! I am also using Shawn Coyne’s (5 item in a scene: inciting incident, progressive complication, crisis, climax, and resolution) and looking at your (goal, conflict, and scene-ending disaster). I have also read Robert McKee’s book and Swain’s book, and I have read your scene-verses-chapter post.

    Can I put component parts of a scene in chapter A and some in chapter B? For example (CAPS MINE), can I have an inciting incidents (hero caught by villain), progressive complications (tied to a wall…rope pulled to breaking point), crisis (do I try and buy some time or do I break my thumb and try and free myself? Best Bad Choice), [CHAPTER A ENDS HERE FOR A CLIFFHANGER?] [CHAPTER B STARTS WITH: Climax (breaks thumb), resolution (hero tricks villain, kills him and escapes) END CHAPTER B], so that the scene moves from life to death. This is not my novel plot, but was a good example I found to illustrate what I’m asking.

    Can I split a scene up like that? In almost everything I watch on tv, they seem to stop short for the sake of a cliff-hanger. Or, am I missing something? Any take on it form you would be helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, totally. Chapter and scene breaks are arbitrary divisions that have nothing to do with scene structure. One of my favorite tricks is actually to end with the Disaster section of the scene structure, using it as a cliffhanger of sorts to pull readers into the Reaction section at the beginning of the next chapter.

      • Thanks so much for your quick reply, K.M! I know you’re busy. This really helps me. I’ve been reading a lot of the articles here, and you do a really good job on those. It’s funny how I kind of assume that other writers might not go as far into things as I do. I have read deeply on these things. Robert McKee, Jack Bickham, Dwight Swain, Shawn Coyne, Donald Maas, and many more. When you reference people like that I know that you have read the same things I have, and when the blog tags that kind of teacher, I know the person writing the post has gone deep enough I want to pay very close attention to what they have to say. This is a gigantic complement! I typically go obsessive and read most everything– which I assume is exactly what you want. I have almost no one to talk these over with. Thank you again, and keep up the good work!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thanks, Lewis! Glad to be of help. 🙂

        • Michael Saltar says:

          Um…I obsess as well. You’re not alone!

          • Hey Michael–

            Just my opinion. I used to think it was just me. Then, I started listing to what was in the subtext of famous people, and I’ve found it’s usually there. Unless you have a super-IQ, how could you do something really great if you didn’t work your butt off and obsess about the thing you love? That’s why I’m looking for tidbits on sites like this one!

            As an example, I was re-reading the first chapter of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon in my car at lunch. I was checking for the elements of Scene in there (this go round). I put Westworld on pause last night and told my wife — hey, look, there’s a choice between two bad things right there. The plot is progressing. The tiger has chased her to the edge of a cliff. It’s a gigantic drop or turn and hope she can shoot the tiger in time. The scene stops just when the tiger leaps (not resolved/crisis/conflict type stuff). And where did they resolve it? At the end of the show (tiger dead on the shore; she washes up alive).

            My non-artistic wife is sick of me doing this by the way, and I have probably ruined watching tv/movies for her by doing this so often. Who would do tings like this? Evidently you and me. We want to get better and better at writing, and why not learn from people who are really good at it. Again, just my opinion 🙂

            And KM, if you check back in here, I am a Scrivener obsessive, too!

  6. Michael Saltar says:

    My kids joke about needing to bring a notebook to the movies when they’re with me. “Naw,” I tell them. “Just set your timer to look for the story beats.

  7. I had to say THANK YOU For this site. You helped me tremendously. For two years…i tried to write a book. (needless to say…its in fragments) I couldn’t finish it. I only have a high school diploma. But i knew I could do it. I just didn’t know how.

    You will NEVER know how much you blessed my life!!! ….This website is incredible. I will definitely be looking to read your other books. 🙂

    May God Bless and prosper you!!! …

    Sincerely,

    Teresa

Trackbacks

  1. […] 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters […]

  2. […] letting the reader feel too fulfilled. Again I’ll recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer, and another K.M. Weiland article. Using Swain’s Scene/Sequel blocks, I note the Goal, Conflict, and Disaster for the first scene […]

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