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STRUCTURING CHAPTERS AND SCENES

March 13, 2014

            Back in 2011, I first touched on this subject but have gained more perspective, experience and insight so thought I’d revisit the very important topic all writers should have as a top priority.

TECHNICALITIES

What is the purpose of a story?

To convey information.

Technically put, this is your goal in a nutshell. You, the writer, are trying to convey information to your reader. If it’s a fictional piece, the whole idea is to convey pleasurable information. Which emotion that involves is entirely up to you, but unless the story is one of those fifty-word shorts (or something like that), it’s going to be long enough to require some sort of structure beyond the basics all stories require: A beginning, a middle and an end.

            To get from point A to point B, there has to be structure, a pattern that makes it easier for the reader to digest. Therefore, to simplify your story, to organize it and make it more palatable for your readers, you go beyond the basic sentences and paragraphs to organize it into chapters and scenes.

ALWAYS SOMEONE TO BREAK THE RULES

The most extreme example I can think of is a book I heard about when I was living in Spain. A Spanish author wrote a two-hundred plus page book and it was one sentence! The only punctuation was one period at the very end. That had to be one seriously tedious story. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a best seller, even in Spain.

As an avid reader, I’ve seen all varieties of structure. Some authors don’t use chapters at all. Their stories are all scenes. Then there are those like James Patterson, who make every scene a chapter. Lately, I tend toward this approach. Then there are those that use a timeline instead of chapters, or they have parts with independent chapters within these parts instead of consecutive chapters starting with one at the beginning of the book and so on.

It doesn’t matter which form you take because it still boils down to organization.

ORGANIZATION

Chapters and scenes organize your story into logical, palatable bite-sized chunks, something the reader can grab onto. This is the same as TV scenes between commercial breaks. The movies do it also, except instead of commercials, they break to a different part of the story, to take a breather, or reveal something.

Organization. Small sections lay out your story so that the reader can help put the story together in their mind as they follow along. They can watch it develop as you tell it.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHAPTERS AND SCENES?

Is there really a difference between chapters and scenes? To many authors, not much.

One way to look at it is that a chapter is more of the big picture, where scenes are little chunks within the chapter. What does that mean?

A chapter is a major clause, section, or part of the story. It’s a chunk of action that takes place. A scene is the same thing but on a smaller scale. Because of this rather vague and arbitrary definition, there are no set rules and many different methods authors use to organize their stories.

OLD SCHOOL

Not too long ago, the standard was that books were organized into chapters and each chapter should have no more than three or four scenes. More than that was considered taboo and excessive. Bad voodoo.

I happen to agree with that if you choose to use standard chapters. More than three or four scenes per, fragments the chapters and becomes annoying. That isn’t to say published authors don’t break that rule and get away with it, but to me, it makes for a disorganized story and takes away from the impact.

REGARDLESS, THEY’RE ALL STRUCTURED THE SAME

Whether it’s a chapter or a scene, they should be written the same. They both follow a basic structure similar to the big picture of your overall story. They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The only thing missing will be the plot resolution.

LIKE AN INDIVIDUAL SHORT STORY

You should treat each scene and chapter like a short story because that’s what they are. Each chapter and/or scene is a co-dependent short story that when assembled, coalesces to create the completed whole novel (or short bigger story).

Each one of these intricate parts completes the whole.

Every scene or chapter must be treated the same. The structure should be as follows, regardless of length:

  1. BEGINNING: Some kind of introduction to set the scene, to let the reader know what, where, why, when and how. It could be a paragraph, a sentence, or even a single word.
  2. MIDDLE: The meat of the matter. This is where you do what you have to do. Get out the information, whatever it is.
  3. END: This can be the most critical part. The end is not only to finish up the chapter or scene, this is also where you sell your reader, where you compel them to go on to the next scene, where you entice them to want to continue reading. There’s nothing worse than to end the section leaving them flat. If they have no reason to move on, why bother? You’ve just lost your reader. The only scene that won’t compel them to want to read more will be the end. Even then, if you do a really good job, they’ll either want a sequel or can’t wait for your next book to come out.

DON’T FORGET TO DUMP THE FLUFF

            One of the most critical things about any chapter or scene, which I’ve preached in many of my other articles, is that any chapter or scene has to be relevant! It has to move the plot along and not be extraneous material. There’s nothing that brings a plot to a screeching halt faster than fluff.

SUMMARY

Whether you choose to use chapters and no scenes like I do, use nothing but scenes, or something in-between, remember the key is that each bite-sized chunk of your short story, novel or novelette must be a short story within. Each little bit must have a beginning, middle and an end. If you have those key elements and pay special attention to each ending, your readers will stay with you right until the end.

Happy writing!

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