Hello, writer, and welcome back to The Novel Series, a multi-part blog post series about writing novels and other forms of fiction. I’ll be posting at least one, if not two, blogs from this series every month until it’s complete.
Catch up and read Part I: How Long Should Your Manuscript Be?
Or, click here to read the full series.
Today’s post is all about chapter and scene length in fiction. It’s something I work on a lot with my author clients either because they’ve asked or because there’s an issue with the flow and length of their chapters and/or scenes.
But before we get started, we need to know the difference between a chapter and a scene. If you already know this, go ahead and skip down, but it’s always good to refresh your knowledge. 😉
// Chapters vs. Scenes
Chapters and scenes are different things, though sometimes it may feel ambiguous or confusing whether you’re reading or writing. (Though I doubt you worry about it as much when you’re reading unless something is so off with the structure that you’re pulled out.)
Put simply, a chapter is a division within a book. Most novels have lots of chapters, sometimes named and sometimes numbered and sometimes both. But they’re there, in the table of contents, plain as day.
Chapters bring order to a book but have nothing to do with the actual story structure or plot. They help with pacing and cliffhangers, aka leaving the reader with questions at the end of a chapter, which spurs them on to the next chapter in the book. Other than that, chapters are pretty arbitrary.
And, obviously, chapters contain scenes. We’ll talk about that relationship later on in this post.
On the other hand, scenes are almost like a mini story within the novel. In a basic scene, the reader follows the character as they try to achieve their goal or desire. Chasing this goal leads to conflict or obstacles, which often leads to disaster, which causes a reaction by the character that leads them to a decision about how to move forward.
And if you think about it, that’s how the overarching plot plays out: Goal → obstacles → disaster/climax → decision/resolution.
Instead of making this all vague and nebulous, let’s look at an example.
The main character’s goal is to get a cup of coffee from their favorite coffee shop in the entire city. This is high stakes stuff! However, as they begin their journey to the coffee shop, they run into a few obstacles: their car battery is dead, their Uber driver gets lost, and they realize they only brought $5 with them. But they finally get to said coffee shop, only to find out disaster has struck: it’s closed! Their decision? They’ll have to go someplace else…. which is going to come with a whole new set of obstacles.
See how that example is both a story within itself but could also play into a larger plot? It contains the basic parts of a scene and leaves room to continue the story after.
Scenes build upon each other, with each layer somehow being propelled forward by what came before it. Think of it like a dominoes chain.
These are basic definitions, and I could write a whole lot more about scene structure, but we’re keeping it simple in this post.
// How long should chapters be?
Remember at the beginning of this post when I said that chapters help with your pacing? That means there’s technically no right or wrong length for a chapter, but it is a decision you need to make purposefully.
Shorter chapters speed up your pacing. They’re easier to read in bursts, often have a lot of action, and propel you forward quickly. Longer chapters, on the other hand, slow your pacing. They let you stroll indulgently through the story, absorbing tons of details and spending a lot of time in one place.
The only thing your chapter absolutely must do is re-engage your reader and make them want to keep reading. Ending a chapter right after a big reveal or twist is a surefire way to make the reader come back.
If I had to give you a word count for chapters, I would tell you that most chapters in fiction fall between 2,000 and 5,000 words. You can even go shorter or longer than that range; it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
There’s a lot of flexibility in that range, and you can use this to your advantage. Every chapter will be paced differently than the others, so don’t feel like you must make every chapter the same length.
// How long should scenes be?
This is a far more complex answer than chapter word counts because scenes don’t have to stick to one chapter (more on that below) and you can include multiple scenes in one chapter.
With both chapter and scene length, just remember that at the end of the day, you need a goal, conflict, climax, and resolution in both your overall plot and your scenes. It’s more important to have a complete scene than worry about the word count.
// How do chapters and scenes work together?
Chapters obviously contain scenes, but the number of scenes or parts of scenes they may include will vary depending on your pacing goals.
Let’s go back to the “goal → obstacle → disaster→ decision” structure of a scene.
You could keep it straight: goal → obstacle → disaster→ decision. Easy enough, right? You might even do that twice in a chapter and then move on to the next.
Or, you may decide to cut off a chapter right after the disaster, leaving the decision and fallout of the same scene for the next chapter. That’s a great way to keep readers hooked and lead them into the next chapter.
If we go back to our coffee shop example from the beginning of the post, you could cut off the chapter right after the protagonist realizes the coffee shop is closed. Talk about drama! Readers will want to know what the character decides to do, so that’s an easy way to break your chapter and extend your scene.
Scenes are flexible over chapters and do not have to be exclusively the length of a chapter. I encourage you to play around with this in your work in progress and see how things read if you break a scene at different points. You may find some very interesting and compelling results!
// How do I know when a scene ends?
Your scene ends when the character makes a decision or comes to a resolution about their new goal or desire.
And, if you’re not ready for the chapter to end with that scene, you may use something called a scene break. You know those fancy ornamental things between two paragraphs, or the several blank lines between two paragraphs? Those are scene breaks, and they signify a change in scene.
Scene breaks usually indicate the character changing setting, a changing point-of-view (POV), or a significant time jump.
The scene break I see writers struggle with the most is the time jump, and I get it. It’s tricky figuring out what a “significant” time jump is, and that can vary depending on the story. When it comes to time jumps, it can also help you to look at the other qualifiers for a scene break: the setting change or the POV change.
If an hour has passed and the character is in a new part of the city–scene break!
If ten minutes have passed and the POV has changed–scene break!
If ten minutes have passed, but it’s the same character in the same location, you could have a “soft” scene break. Ease into the transition. If your character is sitting in a coffee shop and reading while waiting for the villain to show up, show the time lapse with, “After another ten minutes of reading and sipping my coffee…” It still indicates the time change and then you don’t have to describe what someone did for ten minutes. Simple.
// It’s all about guidelines
In the end, the only real “rule” to any of this is that you need to have goals, conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions, and that your scene breaks should be clear.
There’s a wisdom to choosing your word count, and thus pacing, but do so with a grain of salt. There is no magic formula to writing, but having guidelines is always helpful to get started! Mix things up, add new challenges, and put your on twist on things for a truly unique project.
Don’t forget to reread your work to specifically look at chapter and scene breakdowns if you want to check the flow of your work. You can also ask beta readers and critique partners what they think, and your editor will be able to help with all of this!
If you have any questions, leave a comment, find me on social media @btleditorial, or join my Facebook group for writers.