Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Difference between Scenes and Chapters

Some people get confused by the word Scene and think it means Chapter.  As a reader, we don't see the scenes as such.  We only notice the space between scenes as a chance to maybe put the book down.  Chapters, however, are different.  We see them in every book we read, conveniently named and numbered.  I think that's why people get confused.  As readers they're used to thinking in chapters, not scenes.  

A scene is a chunk of writing within the overall story that is a complete bit on its own. Often it's contained within a specific location, or time span, but it always contains an event.  Using the 3 Little Pigs as an example, when the 1st little pig starts and finishes building a house made of straw, that's a scene.  Another scene is when the 2nd little pig starts and finishes building a stick house.  Another scene is when the 3rd little pig starts and finishes building a brick house.

A scene might be a few words, or a few thousand words long - or even longer, although it's unlikely to be much more than that.  Most scenes are probably between 500 and 2000 words, and the average novel probably has between 50-80 scenes.  In a manuscript you show them by leaving a space between each chunk of text.  (This is why it's so irritating when a ms is given academic presentation ie spaces between every paragraph, and no indentation of the first sentence of each new paragraph.  This post follows academic presentation, your novel shouldn't.)

Chapters are usually between 1000-6000 words long, although they also could be only a few words long, or tens of thousands.  Novels generally have between 10-30 chapters.  

Scenes are all about the story telling.  Chapters are all about manipulating the reader experience.  Long chapters, and the pace feels slow.  Short chapters, and the pace picks up.  Where you put your chapters is very important, especially where they end.  You want a reader to feel that they simply have to carry on reading.  Consequently, although a chapter may neatly contain several scenes, the chances are that you'll cut the final scene to make it have an interesting chapter ending that compels the reader to start the next chapter.

A chapter is more likely to contain several scenes, but it could be made up of just the one. I think this is where the confusion comes. While a Scene may also be a Chapter, and a Chapter may be a Scene, they are two different things and have two different functions. As a reader you think in chapters, but as a story teller you want to think in scenes.


Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Good post, Sarah. I totally agree with you about the differences but I would add one more thing. I believe every scene should contain conflict or tension in some measure and should also show action of some kind. That is, the reader should be able to picture the scene and what the characters are doing. Just my opinion, you understand... Feel free to disagree. I do like your very easy to read blog!

Sarah Duncan said...

Absolutely Pat, an event can be action, tension, conflict - or a combo of all three plus all the rest. But an event of some sort there must be. Thanks for your comments on the blog - much appreciated.

Louise Charles said...

Really useful blog Sarah, would you say that a scene is usually written in one point of view? I have a terrible habit of head hopping an as a 'writer in progress' am trying very hard to focus on maintaining a particular pov for a certain scene so as not to confuse. I know that many seasoned writers can change POV but I suppose you need to know what works and what doesn't...

Sarah Duncan said...

Hi Louise - You should try to keep each scene in a single POV (I'd say always except you'd then point out all the established writers who head hop!). But what an established author can do, a newcomer can't. Plus people are more sensitive to things like that generally. It's best to discipline yourself to sticking to one POV per scene, it can be confusing/disorientating/disengaging for the reader otherwise.