It’s easy to assume chapters and scenes are basically the same thing. They actually serve very different functions in your story. And while it’s true that a chapter can be a single scene, and vice versa, most chapters contain several related scenes. Sometimes a chapter ends in the middle of a scene. The beginning or end of a scene doesn’t necessarily mean the beginning or end of a chapter.
Here’s a brief overview of how chapters and scenes contribute to a book.
What makes a chapter vs. a scene?
A scene is the smallest discrete unit of your story. It encompasses a single span of time in a single location. Scenes may or may not be delineated visually on the page with an extra line break, a horizontal line, or a row of three dots.
You may want to think of scenes in terms of a stage play, where they’re often delineated by dimming the lights, moving set pieces, or clearing the cast from the stage. If you switch point of view, move to a new location, or jump forward or back in time, you’ve started a new scene.
Scenes can be short or long. It all depends on how much time you need to spend with your characters at a given time and place. You’ll probably want to include a variety of short and long scenes for dramatic effect. You might even choose to break a scene across two chapters.
That’s right — you don’t have to wait until the end of a scene to start a new chapter. Chapters can include as little or as much of your story as you like. Some novelists have written chapters as short as a single word, while others have chosen to include no chapters at all. Chapters are a stylistic choice that writers use to control pacing.
Unlike scenes, new chapters should always begin on a new page and have some kind of heading or title.
Scenes build story, chapters build style
If you’ve been using the words “chapter” and “scene” interchangeably, you’ve been missing a big creative opportunity. A scene, like a paragraph or a sentence, comes with a pre-existing definition and set of rules. You can use chapters however you like to control how readers experience your novel.
Faulkner famously wrote a chapter containing only a single line: “My mother is a fish.” This line draws most of its impact from the fact that Faulkner placed it alone on the page. Imagine how differently it would read as part of a long block of text in a scene.
Use chapters to break your story into chunks for maximum dramatic effect. Your chapters breaks will determine your readers’ focus and pace as they move through the story.
Where to place chapter breaks
Every author structures chapters differently. I usually group strings of related scenes into chapters to create vignettes within the larger story. I end each one by introducing a small amount of tension and a hint of what’s to come in the next chapter.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry about chapters just yet. Write the whole story first. You may end up reorganizing during revisions anyway. As you revise, think about which scenes naturally hang together. Ask yourself where a short chapter, or series of chapters, might increase tension. Where might a longer chapter invite readers to sink deep into a character’s point of view? Chapters control the pace of your story and keep your readers hooked beyond the opening pages.
Most of all, trust your instincts. Read a lot of books in your genre to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Experiment. Give your drafts to an honest beta reader or critique group. Once you get your scenes and chapters working in harmony, you’ll have your readers hooked until the last page.