We’re Back! New Post: Chapters, Scenes and Parts… Oh My!

Wherein we address the question: how long should my chapters be?

We’ve all been there.  It’s late, the eyelids are getting heavy, you’re laying there reading and the lights are begging to go out.  But the book is good, it has nothing at all do with your jonesing need to fall asleep.  Like, right now.

And so you flip ahead… if only you can just make it until the end of the chapter.   Or at least a break in the chapter, as indicated by one of those lovely skipped lines that indicate a new scene.

Something in our DNA doesn’t allow us to peacefully just stop in the middle of a page, without a line break or a new chapter to look forward to.  It’s just wrong.

And it absolutely sucks when there’s eleven more pages before that happens.

Which begs the question as writers, if not readers… how long should chapters be?

Chapters vs. Scenes

The answer resides in your understanding of the difference between chapters and the scenes that comprise them.  Because when you do, it no longer matters how long your chapters are. 

What matters is how long your scenes are.

A chapter is a contrivance.  It can consist of one scene, or it can consist of several scenes.  Even many scenes.

A scene is a unit of seamless dramatic narrative. 

Think of a scene as a one-act play.  Or as a singular passage of omniscient narrative that may indeed bridge decades, but holds to together like a contextual introduction or a letter bringing you up to date.

If the narrative changes point of view, from one character’s to another’s, that’s always a new scene.

If your narrative changes time or location, that’s a new scene, too.

If back-to-back scenes have an affinity – such as three important encounters in a single day, for example, and each of them comprises a different scene – you may choose to make those three scenes into a single chapter.

But if you do that, if you include more than one scene in your chapters, I strongly recommend you visually separate them with white space.  Skip a line or two when you transition from one scene to the next.

Just like I’ve done here between paragraphs. 

This gives you permission to have very short scenes, even quick cutaways, which together form a sequence, all the while allowing the reader to understand the shifts of time and location involved.

Transitioning between chapters, that’s a no brainer.  You get a new page and a big bold number to help you.  Transitioning between scenes, especially when two or more are presented within a single chapter… go for the white space.

At least you’ll be giving your reader a chance to finally get some sleep.

The Most Important Element of Scene Writing

When you are planning your story using the four-part structural principles and their attendant plot points, mid-point and pinch points, as well as the unique contexts of each of the four parts (quartiles), you should think in terms of scenes, not chapters.

A story has roughly 40 to 80 scenes.  Not 40 to 80 chapters.  How you divide them into chapters is driven by affinity and need, not by the need to separate your scenes.

For that you just skip a couple of lines and move on.

Chapters are simply a collection scenes with an affinity, either topical or sequential.  If there is no affinity, consider going to the next chapter.

Bestselling novelist James Patterson is a big fan of single-scene chapters, resulting in books that present well over 100 chapters, some as short as one page.  He could just as easily offer 40 chapters, even when the scenes number well over 100.

How many chapters you have doesn’t really matter.  How they are grouped, affinity-wise, does.

How many scenes does matter, though, because each scene must be in context to where it resides in the four part structure.   If you have 60 scenes, then each Part has roughly 15 scenes to work with.  Give or take.

Remember, the scenes in the Part 1 set-up have a completely different contextual mission than the scenes in the Part 4 conclusion. 

If you end up with three scenes in your Part 1 set-up, that’s too few.  There’s  no way you can accomplish what needs, according to accepted storytelling principles, to be presented in Part 1 of any story in just three scenes.

If you believe you have accomplished those things, and it took you only three scenes, then you’ve violated yet another principle: each scene should offer only one salient story point, the optimized dramatic potential of which becomes the mission of that scene.

On the other hand, if you have 33 scenes in Part 1, then chances are you’ve pushed your First Plot Point well beyond its appointed place at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile mark.  You’re asking your reader to hang around far beyond a reasonable level of patience before something actually happens in the story.

That’s another reason altogether your reader my be aching to go to sleep.

All of this becomes intuitively natural when you apply the most important principle of scene writing.  And that is to make sure each scene has a specific narrative mission to accomplish. 

That it has one specific thing, one piece of story exposition, that it seeks to get out there.  When you know that mission, then you are free to apply the most dramatic and cool presentation of it possible.

The opening of Inglorious Basterds is a great example.  That 8-minute scene had one mission: to show the evil Nazi was there to kill the folks hiding under the floor.  The rest of it was just dramatization of that one mission.

If you have two pieces of narrative information to dispense, consider crafting two scenes.

Issues of characterization aren’t at issue here.

This is about plot exposition.  All scenes are charged with the responsibility to demonstrate character… that isn’t the mission in question.

That said, a scene that only exists to demonstrate character is a weak scene.  Each scene needs an expositional mission, and only one, in addition to the work of characterizing its players.

If you’d like to learn more about story structure, please consider my ebook, Story Structure – DemystifiedIt’s part of my two-for-one offer, which lasts until March 15 – buy Story Structure – Demystified and I’ll also send you The Three Dimensions of Character… free.

23 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

23 Responses to We’re Back! New Post: Chapters, Scenes and Parts… Oh My!

  1. zz

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for these tips. Your posts have been really useful to me and this is becoming a great resource for fixing up the glitches in my WIP!

    Cheers,
    A.

  2. Robert

    Larry, the third scene in my screenplay is a flashback – its mission is to show a traumatic event that shapes who the protagonist is, and show the audience the origin of the arc he will experience. In your opinion, would this scene show characterization while being expositional?

  3. Larry, I have not read your Story Structure Demystified book (yet) so forgive me if this is a silly question, but how do you structure your work flow as it relates to plot?

    Do you use a template in your word processor where you plug in the four-part structural principles and their attendant plot points, mid-point and pinch points, then go back and fill in the blanks? Do you go in sequence or jump around?

    Regards,
    Shane

  4. @Robert — Interesting. As you describe it, I definately think you’re on solid ground, our understanding of the backstory and the launch of arc is critical exposition, even though it relates mostly to character. If you can drop some foreshadowing into it that is plot-related, all the better, too. Also, flashbacks often make for a great Prologue, have you considered that? Lots of options, but it sounds to me like you get it, that you’re good to go. Hope this helps, best of luck with your project! L.

  5. @Shane – there are no silly questions. Okay, there are, but this isn’t one of them. 🙂 I do it as you suggest, but I don’t use a compute template, I usually do it with freeform flowcharts scribbled by hand. Eventually I move from there to a narrative beat-sheet. As you suggest, I begin with concept, which drives the conTEXT for everything to come. I usually focus on First Plot Point then, which defines the scenes in Part 1. Very quickly in the process I try to nail my ending, which drives foreshadowing and virtually everything else, contextually. Then Second Plot Point, then mid-Point… but I’m free-forming all this, very loose, so as you suggest, there’s a lot of “filling in blank spaces” to flesh out a sequence of scenes. My goal is to identify each and every scene, which allows me to test and flex and push and pull on the story as I evolve the beat sheet into a fuller outline — this allows me to accomplish what “pantsers” say can’t be done in this process (they’re so very wrong about that), and that’s making sure the ideas are the best choices, that they fit, that the pacing and drama are strong, that the story unfolds as it should. Then, when I write, I do continue to evolve and change things, but rarely anything major, because that’s all been pounded on. This pre-writing process can take months, and it’s not easy… it’s just deadly efficient and very rewarding. Lots of ways to approach it, I tend to do it a little differently every time out, but it’s always story “planning” driven by structural principles, and it always works. Hope this helps! L.

  6. He’s back! With a brain frazzler, no less.

    You’ll probably think I’m an odd mum, but last year, I gave my daughter an old copy of a Patterson novel and three Nora Roberts paperbacks in a series and told her to do the maths. You’d think they were written by mathematicians, so formulaic and predictable are the chapter lengths and overall structures. It was a good lesson, though, as she’d just been reading your first ebook and the StoryFix posts i’d shared with her. It stopped her thinking she had to somehow hold all peices of writing in her head and trust to the mercy of some kind of capricious muse.

    I’m longing for the day you do a template, spreadsheet or visual representation of your structure gems! I know the Orgs would try and lynch you, but it would be so useful to have some calming representation of the whole structure, with the end comfortingly in place. I’s no coincidence that JK Rowling had the endng to the 7th book written years before she wrote the oher books.

  7. @Janice — for you and anyone else who’d like a visual of the structural paradigm, there is one in my Story Structure ebook (page 125). If you don’t own the ebook, and you don’t intend to (:-()… let me know and I’ll send it to you.

  8. Debra Young

    Excellent post, Larry. I think and write in scenes, but was worrying about what really comprises a chapter, and was becoming obsessed with chapters rather than scenes. Now I know better and will keep to my scene writing without worrying about chapters. Thanks, d:)

  9. Shirls

    “This pre-writing process can take months, and it’s not easy…”
    That remark is most comforting, Larry. It’s great to have the template of the structure and I thought it would be a snip, but heck, it sure forces the writer to think really hard. I’m looking forward to getting it done and the fun part of writing beginds.

  10. Larry that was an awesome response; just what I needed to hear. Sounds like I’m going to find exactly what I need in your book.

    Like Janice, I’d love to have a template that I can open to see all the essential points I need to hit, then fill in the goodness afterward. Without such boundaries, I believe I, like many others, would go off course. For example, in all the reading I’ve done on the matter, I’ve never heard that there are 40 to 80 scenes (so simple, yet I’ve never read anything listing these numbers). Without knowing this, I may have ended up with 30 scenes or 100.

    Thank you kindly.

  11. Larry: Great post! I just finished SSD on Monday, and I feel like it was the missing link for me (I was so excited I blogged about it, and you may get a few more orders). Your posts are even more valuable now that I understand the structure that you promote.

    @Shane: If you’re using software like Word right now, you might try Scrivener (most awesome, but requires a Mac), or another writing software. They give you a lot more freedom to work outside the linear fashion, move scenes around, easily see how many scenes you have, track word count, and so on. I’d never writer without it again.

    Okay, sorry I’m sounding like a salesperson today. My only comment about scenes is that I’d hope my reader would be so hooked by the ending that she’d have to stay up a little longer. Ideally she’d have to stay up all night to finish! 😉

  12. @Gwen, nver heard of “word right now.”

    But, I’d love a windows based program that is visual like Camtasia studio to show all the chunks and allow me to move around as you say Scrivener does. Nearest thing I’ve heard about in Windows is Sol Stein’s WritePro software.

  13. Patrick Sullivan

    Shane: yWriter is free software (or was last time I downloaded it) that works on windows and lets you write by scene. You can even include notes, list which characters are involved in a scene, etc.

    I ended up giving it up because I wanted a higher powered text editor due to being used to the extra power in stuff like Vim and emacs (programmer tools, ahoy!)

  14. Thanks Patrick. I’d love to have your input on that Larry. Regards,
    Shane

  15. Once again i think that you have some sort of precognitive ability and know exactly what i need to know next as i move on in my writing career. i’m brainstorming scenes and plot points and was trying to figure out how everything needs to be put together, as this one doesn’t come as naturally as my first did. Breaking things down into scenes this way will really let me figure out what needs to be focused on for that section. Best birthday present i’ve gotten was this post in my inbox when i got home. (although my wife is going to order your new book for me tonight…) 😉

    @Shane i’ve got ywriter, and it isn’t visual. The only visual one that i saw that might work for me was liquidstorybinder. Not that expensive, and they give you a 30 day trial with pretty much the full version iirc. i personally go with Notepad++ (more a code editor than writing tool, but i’m used to it from my job) for all my notes along with photoshop and my cheap graphics tablet (about $50) for any mindmapping or whiteboarding, and Word or openoffice for my drafting. Hope that helps.

  16. @Shane — not much of a software guy, so I can’t comment on Patrick’s reply, other than to say if Patrick said it, I buy into it. 🙂

  17. nancy

    As soon as I read this post I began to worry about my character development chapter. I love this chapter but feared it might be as weak as you say. So I went back in and raised the stakes, asking myself: what in this chapter would he be willing to die for. What an improvement. Thanks for your inspiration.

    Now a psychological question: I have 40 chapters among 4 sections: Congo, Frankfurt, DC, Nassau. Would it be easier on the reader to have 4 sets of 1-10 or 40 chapters?

  18. My take is that chapters are a navigational convenience more than anything else. On the other hand, I tend to read by chapters since I find they are usually a break-point between scenes.

    Steve Manning (writeabooknow.com) recommends the equivalent of 10 pages. At about 320 words per page, that’s… 3,200 words. Why? A reader reaches the end of a chapter. If he’s interested, he can peek ahead. “How long is the next chapter?” Oh, 10 pages (4-5 page turns). “I’ll do another chapter.” Pretty soon he’s cursing the author for “making” him stay up all night reading his d*n book.

    While writing my Sorcerer novels, I was posting a chapter per week. The site admin recommended chapters about 3,000 words long. So, I just wrote a bit of Word code to look from the current postion to the start of the current chapter and show the word count. If was close to 3,000, say +- 200 and the last scene was done, that was it for the chapter. This is a different proposition from writing the entire novel before publication.

    Chapters should probably be among the last structure artifacts you do. Get the scenes and everything else done first.

    Re templates: Get Larry’s ebook on Story Structure. That gives you the structure you need to work towards.

    One of us hardy souls might develop a checklist and save as a template. It would have things you need such as: genre, type (short story, novella, novel, etc.), the high concept, develop story world, develop main characters, develop scenes, etc. This is simply a list of points you need to have in.

    As an artist, you can start pretty much anywhere. Could be a character idea. A story world idea. A plot concept. Hopefully you keep those in a journal somewhere.

    Larry’s posted elsewhere about generic story deconstruction (The Most Powerful Two Hours You’ll Ever Spend as a Storyteller). You could save that as a template.

    Start small, build to large. Maybe start with your elevator speech, build up to a potential back-cover/dust-cover blurb, an agent sysnopsis, and then more from there. Probably should have a pretty detailed synopsis done even before you start looking at scenes. Have Plot Point 1, Pinch Point 1, etc., identified in there. The scenes should fall out from there — could use a mind-mapping program, a Word outline or Excel, index or post-its on a board, etc., to tweak those in.

    Do artistic stuff as you do the requirements and design. Especially work out the high concept. Do the design right (which will have the major structure in place), then you can actually start the writing itself with all the artistic license you wish while staying within the design you’ve created. If things take off in a different direction, either re-visit the design or take control.

    Note if you have an outline/blueprint of the scenes, you can write in any sequence. You could do a Plot Point, the second Pinch Point or whatever. You have a good idea what they should contain and where they go because you’ve designed it that way.

    After a couple copyedits and proofing edits, then you can create the chapters.

    Go write something!

  19. @Nancy — mhy opinion: there’s no real difference. If four parts makes sense, then that’s the best and only reason to announce (through sub-title pages) four “parts” to your story (of course, architecturally there should always be four parts, but that’s a different context). So make the call based on how the story breaks down. Chapters, the shorter the better (within reason, and with natural affinity for the scenes within them), allow readers to “chunk” their reading experience without stopping in the middle of something; “parts” don’t offer that, for that reason. Hope this helps. L.

  20. @Bruce — as always, great input, significant value-add, and much appreciated. L.

  21. Great post, Larry. I tend to keep my chapters short and end them with cliffhangers. I like that in books I read too.

    Also, I wanted to let you know I gave you the One Lovely Blog award today. Thanks for all the great writing advice you provide.

  22. Chris

    Thank you so much, Larry. I finally finished my beat sheet, and I can finally see the completion of my book within reach. I have been writing “In circles” for 4-years now, and I know know, with confidence, that I have moved past this confusion.
    I will be following your advice, and I hope that I can use it to make my story “Better than perfect”.
    I hope one day soon that I will be able to capture the feeling you described about getting your first copy in the mail. If that day ever comes for me, I would expect that when I open it, I will be able to see these words: special thanks to Larry Brooks at Storyfix.com

    Your simplicity has been worth more to me than gold; your no B.S. approach is just what a guy like me needed.

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing your knoweledge.

    -Chris

  23. I’m probably echoing many other comments here saying how valuable these posts are, but I don’t have time to read them all to check. I’ve just finished reading Story Structure Demystified and am in the middle of some major renovations.

    Thanks, Larry. You’re a gold mine.