Scene vs chapter, it matters not

I’m doing a lot of writing in the spare room lately, sitting on the futon bed.  It’s a good place to write, distraction free, quiet, and I can change position when my neck or back gets sore.  It’s going well.  I’m 10,000 words into the rewrite of draft 2 and starting to pick up the pace after my rocky start.  I mention this mostly to explain why I haven’t been posting any helpful revision posts lately.  I’m trying to get a solid chunk of words down on the draft, and I have very few to spare for the blog.

So I thought, while I’m here procrastinating, that I would have a brief discussion on writing in scenes vs writing in chapters.

In the first draft I was a writing-in-scenes gal.  I plotted out 63 tidy little scenes to get be from the front end to the back end of the story.  I wrote.  Some of them were big scenes.  Some were small.  But on average I was writing scenes about 1600 words long.

A few months ago I read a book that had eleven scenes in it.  Eleven.  It was a full sized novel.  Each scene made up one chapter.  It was a good book.  So when I finished, I went back and had a look underneath the story, at the structure the writer had used and the way he had developed his scenes.

(By the way, if you don’t already do this, start.  When you read a book that rocks your world, go back over it and try to see the hidden wires and the mirrors and all the other tricks of the magician’s trade.  I mean the writer’s trade.  It’s a great way to learn.)

At just eleven chapters, for a full-length book, we’re talking honking big scenes here.  9000 words plus.  No scene breaks.  Just one continuous flow of story.

And for that story, it worked.  There was only one POV.  The whole story ran in a continuous timeline from the first line to end.  Even the protagonist sleeping didn’t break the scene, and yet the story never faltered.  I was impressed.  (The book, if you want to do some research, is Dauntless by Jack Campbell.)  The author made good use of exposition to keep the scene moving in places where you might normally expect a scene break.  It was a good trick.

So good, in fact, that I totally stole it for draft 2 of Traitor.  The second outline has only 16 scenes, rounding out at approximately 6,600 words each.

Is it working?  Well as a matter of fact, it is.  I am finding it quite easy to write honking big scenes.  I am not having trouble with messy scene breaks.  I am also finding it a lot easier to make the scene do multiple things.  I have a lot more space to play with.  And the story reads so much more smoothly without regular breaks.

I like it.  I’m not saying that I would write every story like this from now on, but it is a tool that I have added to my toolbox.  And in the end, the only real difference between a lot of short scenes rather than fewer but longer scenes is the number of words.  The end result, the story, is basically the same.  It just comes down to style.

Your turn to pitch in.  Do you write in chapters or in scenes?  Do you write large scenes or small?  Have you ever read a book and then tried writing in the same style?  Did it work for you?  Let me know.

7 thoughts on “Scene vs chapter, it matters not

  1. I’m really interested to know how writer’s define a chapter or group their scenes into chapters. I write in scenes and have never really ‘got’ chapters. Since almost all books have them I think I ought to take more notice of them in the next book I read.

  2. That’s a really interesting way to look at things — and what a huge difference between 63 and 16 scenes!

    I’m definitely a “write by chapter” kind of girl — so much so that I often have difficulty breaking down what a “scene” is in my WIP. Most of my chapters are 4000 – 4500 words in length, although at least one is as long as 6000 words and one is only 2500 words. I use chapter length in a similar way to sentence and paragraph length — the faster and more action-packed the narrative, the shorter the chapter.

  3. I write in scenes, some longer than others which are then grouped by chapter. In this story the chapters are designated by time of day as chronology is quite important in this ‘beat the clock’ kind of adventure.

    I like reading books with short scenes, or short chapters and in all my experiments at longer works so far, that has translated into my writing. However, having just read a most confusing novel with dozens of characters in hundreds of short scenes, it’s probably too easy to let get our of hand. I can’t say how my scenes/chapters will end up being presented in the final draft, but I’m still a long way from there right now. It might be a bit bouncy at the moment, but I’m not too worried yet….. honest!

  4. Have to admit that I write in scenes – some are quite long, others fairly short. I then leave it to my trusty editor to make the decision of where a chapter begins and ends, which occasionally means I may have to write a bit more, but hey, that’s what works for me!

  5. I’m a write-in-chapters guy. I’ve never really seen the advantages of writing in scenes, and I think it would be a pain to measure progress. While all my chapters are roughly the same size, my scenes range in size from a few hundred words to a few thousand words.

  6. I used to write in short scenes, some VERY short, but am trying to make them longer these days as looking back, I find that my first draft had way too much bouncing around, and not as much flow as I would like.
    I need to spend more time thinking about the books I read, and seeing how the writers do the things I like so that I can play with those ideas in my work as well.

  7. That’s a very encouraging post, Merrilee. The idea that it’s possible to deconstruct the writing of another and incorporate what works into one’s own. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michael Faber and (thank you Kindle) I’ve been underlining and annotating to the point where I will have to watch out for wholesale plagiarism! How can I write like that without writing that? Past experience tells me to back away and let it settle so that the tricks and devices become vehicles for my own style but right now I daren’t read anything else until they do!

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