Tips for Writing a Novel - Scenes Versus Chapters

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Last week, I received an interesting question from a student. In fiction writing, what is a scene? And how are scenes different from chapters?

I thought I'd share my answer in case this is a question that you have too.

A scene is a part of the story that is shown instead of summarized. A scene gives readers the feeling that they are watching the story's action in "real time".

For example, if you're writing the story "Cinderella", the first scene might show Cinderella mopping the floor when a messenger arrives with an invitation to the ball. You could show this scene with dialogue and description and action so that readers feel that they're seeing it in "real time". The second scene might show Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters preparing for the ball while Cinderella looks on enviously. Imagine that three days have passed between Scene 1 and Scene 2 -- you could use a brief summary or a transition (e.g., "Two days later, the stepsisters...") to bridge the gap.

In most stories and especially in novels, it isn't possible to stay in "real time" mode for the entire time period that the story covers -- imagine that the story takes place over weeks or even years! And during that time, the character will be doing a lot of things that aren't interesting and have nothing to do with your story plot. So the scenes are the specific segments of time when you decide to "zoom in" on what's happening.

Chapters are different. Chapters are an artificial division to break a book up into segments for the reader. A chapter might contain more than one scene. The end of a chapter might coincide with the end of a scene, but in other cases, the same scene might carry over into the following chapter. For example, a chapter might have a "cliffhanger" ending and stop at an exciting point in the scene so that the reader must continue to the following chapter to learn how that scene ends.

You can learn more about writing scenes here.

The best way to learn about scenes is to analyze published novels

Look at how the authors flesh out scenes to create a "real-time" feeling during important moments of the story. See how they use transitions and summary to string the scenes together.

That's what fiction is made of -- scenes, connected by by transitions and summary.

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