Scenes vs. Chapters: What's the Difference?
Ah the age old conflict, how do I tell when I’m writing a scene vs. a chapter?
A common problem I see when developmentally editing manuscripts is authors who don’t know when to start a new scene or chapter. To be fair, the difference can be tricky. Scenes and chapters are closely related in that they must both have conflict and tell a mini-story within the larger story. All of that has to happen while moving the story forward, challenging the characters, and being properly paced. It’s honestly a wonder anyone can write a book with all of that going on! The good news is that a lot of the things you need to include in your scenes and chapters are things you’re doing innately. So what are the big differences between a scene and chapter? Let’s dig into chapters first.
A chapter is made up of either one or multiple scenes. Sometimes, a chapter only needs one long scene, other times it needs two or three or even four scenes within it. Okay, so we’ve got that clear: a chapter is made up of scenes. Now, how do we know when to start and begin a new chapter?
You should think of your chapters like small stories within your bigger story. If you’re plotting, you should outline your chapters with goals and arcs in mind. What is the character’s goal in this chapter? What is the conflict? Does the character achieve or not achieve her goal? And ultimately, how is this chapter moving the story forward toward the ultimate end goal? Chapters can skip over time, they can happen right after the events from the previous chapter, it all depends on what your story demands.
Chapters should end for a couple reasons: the character completed her goal for the chapter, the main character didn’t complete her goal for the chapter, or the conflict of that chapter was resolved, or the conflict changes to a bigger one.
For example, let’s look at The Hate U Give to break down what I mean.
The first chapter shows us Starr at a party. We’re immediately drawn into Starr’s conflict because she doesn’t feel like she belongs at this party. Add some drama with friends, a gunshot, and police arriving, and you’ve got a lot of conflict. But it’s about to get a whole lot bigger. The chapter ends with Starr and her friend fleeing the party in a car and a siren whoops behind them.
The ending of the first chapter is great, because it concludes with a siren wailing—a cliffhanger. What’s going to happen? Will the cops arrest them? Clearly, this chapter ends because the old conflict is giving way to a new and bigger one.
Another example is from The Bird and the Blade. The first chapter introduces the problem the main character faces: the prince she was supposed to be protecting is missing, and she needs to find him. The chapter ends when the conflict is resolved: she finds out the prince has been captured. The chapter’s arc is over, and now we can move on to find out what she’s going to do in response.
Now, let’s talk about scenes. Scenes are the inner workings of the chapters. Each scene needs to come with its own conflict and goals that all work toward the bigger chapter goals. If you have a scene in your book that doesn’t have conflict on its own and is only building toward the next scene’s conflict, it might be time to think about merging the two scenes. The best times to split a scene within a chapter are for the following reasons: time change, location change, one conflict being resolved and another one being introduced (all within the arc of the chapter), or if a character’s goals change mid-chapter for one reason or another.
Again, let’s take a look at The Hate U Give, chapter three. In this third chapter, there are three different scenes. Each scene deals with the same theme: Starr processing her emotions in the aftermath of the cop pulling her and her friend over. The first scene is right after the cop shoots her friend and Starr’s parent pick her up and bring her home. The next scene is Starr having nightmares throughout the night, unable to sleep. The third scene is Starr waking up the next day and dealing with the realization of her loss. Each scene works toward the overall chapter arc of showing what the aftermath of a cop shooting her friend does to Starr, but each scene shows a different aspect of the aftermath, which is why the scenes are separated. They each deal with their own mini-theme of showing Starr’s trauma.
Now, let’s look at The Bird and the Blade. The first chapter that has separate scenes is chapter five. The chapter is a flashback, showing all the little moments that led up to the big moment where the prince was captured. The entire point of the chapter is to show the girl traveling with the prince and his small army, and it shows ultimately what propels them onto their journey. The first scene is about the girl feeling uncomfortable traveling with this army of men, who all think she is a boy. She is supposed to be hunting and foraging for food, but instead escapes to a tree, falls asleep, and dreams of an old life. The scene ends there. Why? Because there’s a passage of time. The next scene begins when the girl wakes up to find out what happened while she was asleep (hint: it’s not good). The two scenes work together to show what happens to the prince’s army that ultimately starts their awful journey.
Scenes and chapter can be tricky, and sometimes, it’s better to just write and worry about all the technical stuff later. Don’t get too bogged down wondering if you’re ending a chapter or a scene in the right place. Write the story you want to tell, and you can always go back and revise for clarity later on. Even better? Have awesome beta readers, CPs, or editors (cough, like me), who will guide you and help you better understand where to end your scenes and chapters to pack the most punch and tell the best story possible.