Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Makes a Chapter? What Makes a Scene?

A common question in my book-writing classes is the difference between chapters and scenes.  Both are pathways, bridges between one moment and the next.  But what makes a chapter work?  What makes a collection of scenes warrant it
s own chapter?

In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts for each, which help the writer know how to section her manuscript--and if more or less is needed.

What's a Scene?

One great definition of a scene is a moment when an emotion is articulated in some way, usually via action.  In fiction and memoir this might be a run-in between two characters, a memory of a past event that still brings a surge of shame or delight, a conversation where someone doesn't get their hopes realized--or does.  Scenes are small time capsules, potent because they contain more than is openly revealed.  In nonfiction, a scene might be considered an anecdote that demonstrates the book's theory or a step of that theory.  For instance, a weight loss book might contain a scene where a man stands in front of a pastry counter at the local grocery store, calculating his chances of getting a doughnut and getting outside before his wife, shopping in another aisle, notices.  A nonfiction book on how to play the piano might contain "scenes" (or "islands," as I like to call them) that explain the keyboard.

Scenes are not necessarily complete with beginning, middle, and end.  They might leave us hanging, which tells us there will be another scene later to finish the story.  We'll read on to find out where the thread continues. 

What's a Chapter?
A chapter is often a sequence of scenes, or "islands," that carry the reader through to some new level of understanding about the story or the book's topic.  This week I read a great quote from William Goldman and David Morrell about chapters:  "Jump in late, leave early."  That really describes the page-turner in the fiction and memoir worlds.

In nonfiction, a chapter concludes more overtly.  There's a hook to future material, certainly; otherwise, why would we read on?  But nonfiction chapters deliver information and there's a sense at chapter's end that we've received enough to ponder and absorb.  Nonfiction chapters often end with completion of thought, while fiction and memoir leave something deliberately unfinished. 

Creating Transitions between Scenes and Chapters
If you write in "islands," or non-sequenced moments, as I do, you'll need to look carefully at the transitions between your scenes within a chapter and your chapters within the book.  This is where the arc" comes in. 
What's an arc?  Well, books have them and chapters have them too.  The arc is like a bridge that connects the beginning to the end.  The reader, ideally, travels smoothly across this bridge from moment to moment.

Transitions are sentences, phrases, images, and other elements in your writing that allow the reader to move smoothly between the emotions/meaning of one scene or chapter into the next one.  Transitions, hopefully, allow the reader to get excited about what's to come, as well as let her absorb the importance of what's just happened.

I admire good transitions.  One of my favorite transition tools are images.  Sometimes a writer will plant a repeating image as a way to link different parts of a book.

Example:  Oranges are peeled at the end of chapter 12 and an orange glow is in the sky at sunrise in the beginning of chapter 13.  These chapters might be in different points of view, or take place in different eras, but the reader will be able to transition because of the repeating image.

Images can be smells, sounds, heat or cold, light or dark, a piece of furniture or a room or an object--whatever has meaning and can be repeated without too much fanfare.

The idea is to plant the image then return to it, creating a good transition as you do.

What About First Chapters?
My writing classes spend a lot of time on their first chapters. First chapters are hard!  I often write them last, after the rest of the book is in good shape.

First chapters are often all that an agent or publisher reads, and they must be intensely engaging.

Here's a quick checklist for first chapters, my "must have" list:

1. Introduce the main players (narrator, main character, or someone the reader can relate to) via anecdote or action scene
2. Introduce the main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Place us in an engaging and relevant physical, emotional, and cultural setting that will echo throughout the book

Lots to live up to, eh?  That's why first chapters are the make or break chapter of most books.  If they don't engage, the book gets set aside.

The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.

What about the Last Chapter?
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.

This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.

What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.

What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.

This Week's ExerciseFind a scene or chapter that doesn't quite work for you.  Spend time with it--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Use the first-last chapter notes above as a checklist, and analyze your drafts for what's missing and what's too much.


  1. Thanks for the tip. I've just finished the first draft of my 3rd novel and am in the process of the fitting my scenes into chapters. I like to do this once the story is finished. I think doing this at the end makes for better chapter breaks. I find it distracting to think about chapter breaks when I'm in the flow of writing.

  2. This is a very helpful post. I'm in the middle (? who knows?) of a revision and I wonder about what makes a chapter all the time. I think I know intuitively but am not sure.

  3. Thanks for visiting, Kristina! I hope the information helps your chapter breaks. Nice idea to not worry about them until the end. That's what I do too.

  4. Thanks for visiting, and I hope your revision goes well, Jan!

  5. I love the transition and first chapter description. Thank you for putting it into those terms.

  6. Thanks for your feedback! Glad it was helpful,

  7. This has really helped me. I have read many books but this is the first time I have had to put one of my own together and am gathering as much knowledge as I can. This was a confusing part for me. Thank you for making it much clearer.

  8. I'm SO excited now! I've had this idea for a book since I was 11 or 12 (93'/94') and I even have a "rough" story version of it when I got the idea. A couple years ago, my love of reading was renewed when I read the Twilight series and have been reading other series since. My book idea has been in the back of my head ever since and I even started writing a more "teen/adult" version of it. I have so much to learn and this gave me such relief and excitement. Cannot wait to write and learn all I can. Thank you!

  9. So glad it was helpful, Melody! Thanks for visiting!