Scenes versus Chapters: What's the Difference?

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Scenes versus Chapters: What's the Difference?

When structuring your novel, should you break up the story into scenes or chapters? Is there a difference?

In this post, we’ll talk about the differences between scenes and chapters, what every scene should include, and how breaking your story into scenes can help you with drafting and revising.

What is a scene?

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. They’re mini-stories that make up one larger story. Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end, and centers on one event, action, or situation. Scenes can even follow several or all of the beats used in a story’s beat sheet. They’re constructed with these elements of storytelling: action, description, dialogue, reflection, and exposition. It’s where all your skills blend to create a compelling narrative.

Every scene should serve at least one of these purposes:

A scene ends when the story moves to a new location, a new period of time, or a new point of view.

What is a chapter?

Essentially, chapters signal to the reader when it is a good place to take a break. Without them, readers may become overwhelmed or confused, especially if your book includes multiple points of view, alternate timelines, or flashbacks. As a writer, you want to keep your reader immersed in the story, so it’s important to organize your chapter breaks in a way that will build anticipation, and encourage your audience to return and continue reading.

Scenes vs. Chapters

Chapters are arbitrary dividers of a novel that are used to set the reading pace, while scenes are structural dividers and set the structural pace of your novel.

Books are usually written in scenes and can be broken up strategically into chapters to influence the experience for the reader. Sometimes there may be some overlap between scenes and chapters, but there are no rules about how many scenes should go into each chapter.

Benefits of writing and revising in scenes

Writing and revising scenes instead of chapters can help you improve the pacing of your story or figure out what’s working and what’s not by looking at the beats of each scene. It also allows you to make sure every piece of your narrative has a purpose and reads dynamically (with goals, conflicts, and shifts).

It creates a cause-and-effect relationship between plot points as well. If every scene leads to the goal of the next scene, you have a seamless story where plot points happen organically and don’t feel contrived or coincidental.

A few tips

Write your story first before thinking about chapter breaks. Just do what feels natural when drafting and worry about the chapter breaks during the revision process.

Pay attention to chapters and scenes when reading— see if you can identify what choice the author made for each chapter break, and why they made that choice in this part of the book.

Consider your novel’s genre and audience. A fast-paced thriller may benefit from shorter chapters that allow the audience to enjoy the action scenes without getting fatigued. Readers of literary or experimental fiction may have more patience for longer, slower-paced chapters than readers of middle-grade books.

If you’re writing a story with multiple POVs, an easy way to determine chapter divisions is to start a new chapter every time you switch the point of view. This means you will likely only include one or two scenes per chapter.

Remember, there are no strict guidelines that mandate how long your chapters should be. Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star has chapters that range from a quarter of a page to 6 pages. Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch has chapters ranging from 60 to 80 pages, and Ruth Ware’s The Turn of The Key has no chapters at all! Do what feels right for you and your story.

Or try mixing it up. Try out different places for chapter breaks in your manuscript to see what works best. Get feedback from beta readers.

If you want a further breakdown of how to write dynamic and engaging scenes, check out our novel revision course in the Writing Mastery Academy, and join our community of writers.

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