Last week I wrote a post about how to end a chapter and I got several writers asking me this follow-up question: How do you know the difference between a scene and a chapter?

This question confuses a lot of writers, so I thought I would try to explain it, and to show you how it works, using an example from a client who very kindly allowed me to carve up her work-in-progress and share it with you. (Thanks, Shelley!!) I am talking about fiction and memoir here, but will also reference non-fiction where appropriate.

So first, some definitions.

What is a scene?

  • A scene is the smallest unit of story.  Characters come onto the “stage” in one time and place, and one action occurs. As soon as you switch location, time,  or point of view, you are switching the scene.
  •  For non-fiction where there are no characters per-se, a scene can be thought of more like a chunk of material, where one concept is described or illustrated.
  • A scene may not offer a concrete conclusion to the action or idea presented – but it will most definitely be connected to the next action or idea. It will lead to it or point to it.
  • Scenes are often delineated by an extra linespace, but not always. Sometimes there is no break. It on the scene and the story. 

What is a chapter?

  • A chapter is comprised of related scenes that are all working together to make a similar point, or set up a critical moment. Think of chapters as a sequence of scenes. Of course a chapter can be just one scene. Mega-selling writer James Patterson sometimes writes chapters that are just one scene, and sometimes even just one page long.
  • Think about making a new chapter when the character’s goal in the scene changes, or the direction of the story changes.
  • in fiction, the scenes in a chapter all lead to a crossroads or a decision or a moment of truth: they move us forward through a change (that sets up the next change in the next chapter.) Chapters should be connected in what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One happens because of the other. They are not a random collection of things that happen. They cause the next thing to happen.
  • In non-fiction, the end of the chapter almost always offers the end of a thought or concept, and those thoughts and concepts build to a new understanding of something.

How you move through scenes and chapters is part of the art of writing. It dictates the flow, or pace, of your work. A novel with short scenes and short chapters is going to have a much different feel to it than one with long ones. Sometimes writers vary the length of scenes and chapters to emphasize an action – a short scene after a long one, for example, can pack a strong punch.

There is no right or wrong, but to give you get a feel for how this works, I went through one client’s submission that was just one giant chunk or writing. Shelley is writing a young adult novel about a girl who is learning about her family’s troubling past from her grandfather. In the attached sample, she presents a series of important scenes. Some of the writing, as you will see, is very good, but it all was sort of glommed together, which made it very hard to follow.

Download the 30 pages below. In order to see my comments in the margin, you can’t view it on an ipad or a phone. You need to full spread of the computer.

I took out all the line edits I did on these pages because they made it pretty messy. I just left in the comments, because I thought you might like to see what those look like.

The comments highlighted in YELLOW are the ones pertaining to scenes and chapter. I explain why I suggested a scene or a chapter.

Please remember that this is a work in progress, and this is the first crack at this task of dividing up this chunk of text. It will no doubt change and grow – but this is what it looks like to do this work.

TK, which you will see me use throughout, means “to come.” It’s proofreader-speak for anything that needs to be added.