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How to Tell the Difference Between a Scene and a Chapter

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.




How to End a Chapter


How to End a Chapter

I was working on a client’s manuscript this week (a novel) and noticed a recurring pattern: at the end of every chapter, she stopped abruptly, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. One character would ask a question and the other would simply not reply. I kept turning the pages thinking that there must be extra line spaces inadvertently added in, but no – that was where the chapter ended.

I asked the writer what was going on, and she said, “I did that to create tension, so the reader would want to know what was going to happen next.”

While that impulse is excellent, the execution wasn’t there. It’s not random curiosity that you want to engender in the reader. It’s story-specific curiosity.

You want a chapter to bring the main character to a decision or a crossroad or some moment where something specific at stake, so that the reader wonders what that character will do. The decision or action has to have meaning to them and their internal reality – the truth of what they want and why they can’t seem to get it.

Writing a novel is building what Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing leads to another thing, which leads inexorably to the final moment when the main character has to face the thing we have come to watch her struggle with.

There is a fabulous explanation of this truth from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They talk about a test: if you can say, “and so” to link together the element of your story, you have missed the boat. “And so” means you have a collection of things that happen—probably random, probably not leading to anything, probably not capable of capturing a reader’s attention. What you want instead is to link things with “because of that…” 

One thing happens and because of that another thing happens and because of that the next thing happens.

Cause and effect. It means everything is linked. It means everything has to be there in order for the whole to make sense.

You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their “because of this” theory HERE.

It’s the fundamental lesson of story, and one that you can stop and measure at the end of every chapter.

Ask yourself:


·      What’s the thing that has happened in this chapter?  

·      What, then, is the thing that happens because of that?


That’s what the reader will turn the page to find out.  If you can’t answer, you’re not finished with that chapter.

And if you have to stop in the middle of a conversation or invent some drama to urge the reader forward, think again.

For memoir, you have the advantage of being able to look back on your life and see the connections that led from one thing to another. You can see the dominoes lined up. And your bigger task is to take OUT some of the pieces that don’t apply to the one trajectory we are tracking.

In how-to and self-help, the “because of that” test will help you to build a solid argument that draws your reader through a series of steps and decisions to become something new – smarter, skinnier, divorced, or whatever state you are guiding them towards.

Crafting better chapter endings is a powerful way to become a better writer. Pay attention to the flow of one chapter to another and you will be on your way to a story your reader can’t put down.