Let’s take a look at fiction writing basics: scenes, narrative, and chapters. Several readers asked “What’s a chapter?” My response, “Whatever it needs to be,” isn’t all that helpful, so let’s clarify.
Your fiction is constructed in scenes and narrative
I rarely use chapters in short stories and novellas. When I write a novel, I write it in scenes, and set up chapters in the second or third draft. You need to be wary of chapters (see below.)
Let’s get some definitions out of the way.
What’s a scene?
“A scene is defined as a unit of action; the operative word being ACTION. Something happens in a scene. If nothing much happens, it’s not a scene.”
A scene can be 40 pages, or two paragraphs in length. I know “pages” have zero meaning in ebooks, so let’s assume that a page is 250 words, and 40 pages are 10,000 words.
Most of my scenes in short stories and novels are around 1,500 words. Some may be just 400 words. Others — the “big” scenes — will be longer.
When I’m planning a novel, for example, I know I need to establish the set up of the story in four scenes. If I get to my seventh scene, and still haven’t finished setting things up, I need to rethink.
Big scenes, those scenes which are essential, and are major turning points, need more words. I allocate those words in planning. That said, be loose in your planning. A scene which you thought would be major, may not be needed, if you’ve changed the plot.
You’ve heard of “show, don’t tell”. Your scenes are showing. Narrative is telling. Narrative is a report of what happened. You need some narrative. You can’t show everything that happens in your fiction in a scene. Minor events and pieces of action don’t need to be shown.
For example, let’s say that your main character moves across the country to take a new job. You could say “Fred moved to New York”, and leave it at that. That’s narration.
However, perhaps something important happens during the trip, but you don’t want to show it in a scene. You’d just narrate (tell) what happens.
Or perhaps you need to include a little information about something that happened before your story starts. You could add a little narration to cover that. (Don’t overdo backstory. Too much backstory stops your story dead; you’ll lose readers, who just want to get on with the story.)
What’s a chapter?
A chapter’s an arbitrary division of your story.
The big question: how many scenes in a chapter? is very hard to answer. You might have three scenes and some narrative in a chapter. You might have just one scene in a chapter if something big happens.
Use reader-curiosity to keep readers reading at the end of a chapter
We’ve said that you need to be wary of chapters. Here’s why. A reader might get to the end of the chapter, and stop reading. The end of a chapter is a natural stopping point to readers — don’t allow that. A reader may vanish for good.
If you’ve enrolled your ebook in KDP Select, and it’s available in Kindle Unlimited, the more pages your readers read, the more you get paid. 😉 Levity aside, you’re writing to be read, so it’s your job to keep readers reading.
Either end your chapter with suspense: “Eve turned around. The man was holding a gun.” Alternatively, foreshadow something in the final scene of the chapter which intrigues the reader so much that he must keep reading to see what happens next.
Chapters can be very useful: they encourage you to remember readers. Big tip: always know WHY you’ve set up a chapter — don’t just create a chapter because you’ve written four scenes and think you need to create a chapter.
In your first draft, focus on scenes and narration
You can do as I do, and ignore chapter divisions in your first draft. The only time it makes sense to divide your fiction into chapters in your first draft is if you have clear divisions.
- You’re writing from more than one point of view;
- Your fiction takes place in multiple eras (as when you’re writing a time travel novel, for example);
- Some other reason — if you’ve got reasons to set up chapters, do it.
First chapters, last chapters: focus on SCENES
Authors tend to worry about their first and last chapters. After all, it’s true that the first chapter sells your book. The final chapter sells the next.
I tend to concern myself with the first 10% of the book (Amazon shows the first 10% in Look Inside), and the final two scenes. Make your initial two scenes, and your final scenes satisfying to readers, and you’ve done well.
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