Build Novel Chapters with Scenes

Stonemasons building a cathedral

At the level of structure, writing a novel is like a construction project. Understanding the basics will allow you to use imaginative architecture. (Image: public domain.)

How should we writers construct our chapters? Inevitably, the process starts with scenes. Some authors create lengthy scenes and simply make the big scene into an entire chapter. Novels constructed this way can seem slow moving, weighty, and dull, although skilled writers have made this work throughout the centuries that novels have been written. Writers of a more commercial bent often turn out short scenes and declare each little episode a little chapter. We have all seen the numerous genre books with three-, four-, or five-page divisions. While conceptually simple, and conducive to a fast-paced story, the scheme looks and feels crude. Most writers use multiple scenes, separated by spaces or asterisks, to assemble each medium-length chapter. This most popular arrangement combines reasonable pace with satisfying variety and complexity.

Write enough scenes to reach the desired or planned climax for the chapter. If you end up with too many scenes and your chapter is becoming too long, reconsider what you need to accomplish and look for places where there is already a nice climax and end the chapter there. Do not try to do too much in any one chapter. Only experience can help you here. Get in there and give it a try!

For those using multiple scenes per chapter, here is a way to think about chapter and scene structure: A chapter is an episode that has a “local” climax aimed at moving the story towards the novel’s greater climax. The novel’s climax is the resolution of the hero’s dilemma. Therefore, each chapter is a step along the way. Not always a step forward, mind you, but a step nonetheless. All good story telling depends upon dealing the hero a number of setbacks.

At the next level down, a chapter is an assembly of what might be termed super-scenes, each with a minor climax. In its turn, a super-scene is an assembly of scenes, each with some kind of closure. The minor climaxes of the super-scenes build towards the chapter climax, they gradually complete the episode laid out in the chapter. When it ends, readers must sense that the chapter has accomplished something. They should feel that the story has been enhanced and moved forward. The closure at the end of each scene builds towards the minor climax of the super-scene. More easily grasped from a picture than text, the whole thing is hierarchical:

Three level branching flow chart of chapter, super-scene, and scene hierarchy.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

4 thoughts on “Build Novel Chapters with Scenes”

  1. Haven’t thought much about this, but all very true. Especially dragging a single scene across a large chapter, that can be a problem. I’ve seen short burst single scene chapters work well on occasion, but what you recommend does seem the way to go.

  2. Like you Max, most experienced writers don’t think about their work in such a structured way. A lot of what goes on while writing fiction is instinctive or intuitive. My intention with this post is to point the way for beginners by providing a framework within which to work. I recall that, when I first started to write, my biggest problem was rambling poorly-organized work. The lucky ones who don’t have this shortcoming can just get on with it!

  3. “My intention with this post is to point the way for beginners by providing a framework within which to work.”

    And I’d like to thank you for that. I noticed that this blog post is older. Have your thoughts changed any?

  4. Hi Lori,

    Apologies for the long delay in replying; you caught me in the dreadful midst of moving house!

    My thinking has not changed when it comes to constructing chapters in a work of fiction, but my way of presenting the idea of hierarchical structure makes it appear more mechanical than it really is. In other words, I would not change the idea, but I would alter the way in which it is put forward. I write far more non-fiction than fiction, and perhaps this situation pushes my fiction technique in the direction of the well-structured outline.

    Most fiction writers quickly develop an intuitive (and personal) way of going about the process of working up a chapter. Writers who do not use outlines, however, often find that what they have written up as a single block is actually more than one chapter; the material must be broken up and reworked a bit to ensure the story has the proper “punchlines.” At other times, what these writers have produced needs enhancements and extensions before it measures up as a full-blown chapter. There is also the common phenomenon of realizing that the first chapter opens too late in the story and earlier chapters must be developed to set the scene more thoroughly.

    I am a firm believer that all of these scenarios can be avoided with due care and attention to the proper and full development of the story at the outline stage. The argument of the seat-of-the-pants authors that you cannot foresee how the story will develop ahead of time (i.e. before you have partially written it up) is easily countered with the dedicated use of notes. I start with an idea, work up some notes for plot, characters, and setting, and then keep adding more notes as fresh ideas occur to me. I organize the process by timeline in a Word file, labeling and dating each note and using the navigation panel to find particular notes I want to reread or modify, and to work out insertion points for new notes. Unlike large blocks of prose, notes can easily be moved from one place to another in the file. Again unlike blocks of prose, notes are easily altered to fit with your latest ideas. Over time, this builds a crude outline already organized by the story’s timeline. When the time is right–and if you are patient, you will know when that is–you can move on to polishing your outline to its final state.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: