Shelley Widhalm

Take 2: Scenes vs. Chapters

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

In story and novel writing, it initially would seem logical that the point where a chapter ends would be the same as when a scene ends.

But it’s not so cut and dry.

A scene can carry over to the next chapter to keep the reader turning the pages unable to resist – as with a potato chip or an M&M – just one more.

Each scene tells a mini story complete with dialogue, action and descriptions. The scenes taken as a whole advance the story or move the plot forward.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that every scene needs to work as a stand-alone story and bridge to the next scene, or chapter. That way, the scene could be pulled out and stand on its own.

I simply had thought a story or novel was no more than a series of scenes strung together to create the beginning, middle and end.

Taking the advice seriously meant I had to work harder at my writing.

To do this, I try to think of each scene as a take for the stage. I ask what the purpose is for the scene and why I care about what’s happening.

There should be some kind of tension or conflict among my characters. How they act is motivated by their wants and desires, as well as their feelings and reactions to one another.

The main character of the scene should have an objective, face opposition to that objective and endure rising stakes that make his or her choices harder and harder to make.

Scenes can end in various points in the storytelling process. They can end in the middle of the action, at the point of a major decision or when there is new information.

Scene can end:

  • At a strong display of emotion.
  • When raising a question with no immediate answer.
  • When there are changes for a shift in time or place.

Avoid scenes where characters just talk without conflict, that switch between points of view and that introduce a new character’s viewpoint too far into the telling of the story.

If successful, the scenes won’t be noticed, as well as the chapter breaks, if the reader is immersed in the story, almost as if watching a movie.

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  1. You raise good points and give good pointers! Thanks.

  2. Oh, you could’ve been beta reading my last manuscript draft as your inspiration for this post. I’ve got some serious rewrites to do, and they involve many of the points you raise here. There are so many things we need to remember, so reminders like this are really helpful for me!

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