Scenes Now, Chapters Later
Chapters are something that many writers struggle with. What exactly is a chapter, and where does one end and another begin? Every author seems to have their own idea, and that’s fine, but the variety of styles only compounds the problem if you’re unsure which way to go.
Here’s my position on the matter. I think that writers who are worried about chapters are prematurely chapterising. You don’t actually need to think or plan in terms of chapters unless you want to. Instead, consider writing only in scenes.
Some authors don’t really distinguish between chapters and scenes, in that each of their chapters is a single scene, without any scene breaks; those books tend to have dozens of very short chapters. That’s perfectly legitimate. If you prefer that style, then you have no problem. But it’s not my preference, and so I use a different strategy.
When I’m writing — or even just planning a book — I think only in terms of scenes. Scenes are easier to grasp: they’re a chunk of narrative which is consistent in perspective, location, and time. If you switch any of those things, you’ll (almost always) begin a new scene, notwithstanding certain artistic techniques designed to elicit particular effects.
My outlines deal with scenes, and I write only in scenes in my writing tool, which is [Ulysses]. Each scene is a separate document in the list, and when I’m writing, I focus solely on the current one. This has some very beneficial effects:
- Since scenes are consistent in terms of story-relevant matters like perspective (i.e. the character whose point of view we’re inhabiting), location, and time, I can track those things using tags or labels or such, and build up a really useful overview of my narrative’s balance. This helps weed out structural problems.
- I can readily move scenes around later. I can drag them to other places in the overall flow, with no cutting and pasting necessary. I can try out different techniques of pacing, or even rearrange story arcs, very easily. I can also insert or remove character arcs cleanly.
- I can assemble chapters out of scenes, and change my mind at any time. My personal approach is to write the entire first draft before I even think about where the chapters go. Then I create separate documents containing just the chapter headings and nothing else, and put those where they fit best. Moving a scene between chapters — to balance chapter-length, or pacing, or to create some other effect — is as easy as shifting a document’s place in the collection. This also works for assembling chapters into parts, if your novel uses parts.
Those are useful benefits, but they’re just added bonuses. The main reason to write in scenes now, and chapterise later, is that it changes how you write scenes in the first place. I get reviews including words like “gripping” and “compelling” because while I’m writing, any scene might conclude a chapter. That fact creates a certain cadence, and means that you can’t just slide off the end of any scene; it has to be punctuated. They don’t all need to be cliffhangers, but they do all need to carry themselves. Every scene ends on a beat.
Not only does this make the job of building chapters much easier — since you have complete freedom, and aren’t searching for the next punchy scene-closer because they’re all viable candidates — but it also subtly forces you to write a page-turner by stealth.
If chapters are giving you trouble, or even if they aren’t, punt the problem down the road and focus completely on just the current scene. Then do it again and again, and don’t be surprised when you end up with something your readers won’t be able to put down.