Friday, November 12, 2010

write in chapters or scene

Chapters versus Scenes

Normally when writing a novel, no matter the draft I'm in, I write in chapters. But before I made it to the full length of a novel, I started by writing scenes. The first few years of my writing life, the part where I figured out I wanted to write, was spent either writing poems or writing scenes of stories I wanted to maybe one day make into a novel. But by my second novel writing attempt (also known as NaNoWriMo 2007) I was into chapters and continued from there. I still do some things in scenes. The romance/erotica novel I'm sort of writing at the moment is being written scene by scene and technically the blog novel "Cinder Story" is also being written in scenes for different blogfests. The rest of my novels all have been in chapters...

Except for NaNoWriMo 2010. Yep. This year I am writing my epic fantasy novel in scenes and not chapters. Back when I was at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference, there was a workshop on editing where the presenter said he wrote his first draft in scenes instead of chapters. He wrote science fiction but I thought it would be a good thing to try for epic fantasy too.

But what is the difference between writing in chapters versus writing in scenes and why pick one over the other? I'm glad I asked. lol

A chapter is a planned (or random) break in a story that usually requires a page turn in a printed book though there are some exceptions. The online sources I've skimmed through say that a chapter has an average of 3 to 5 scenes in general, but I've never purposefully counted scenes when writing chapters. I just write what feels right and end at a point that makes sense. Some also say that all chapter endings should have some sort of cliff hanger and/or reason for the reader to want to read the next chapter instead of putting it down. They can actually be a variety of lengths. Some make it a full page and no more while other chapters can seem to last forever. Some people try to keep their chapters uniform in length. There is a member of a writing group that I run who tries to get around 2,500 words per chapter. I tend to fall in the other camp where I don't care how long the chapter is, though I do like to get over 1,000 words if possible because less than seems so short. Since this has become the common place method for my novels, I prefer to write in chapters.

Scene changes usually occur when there is a change in location, time, and point of view. A scene can be split between too different chapters and sometimes there is a preference to those that don't end the chapter at the end of a scene because it stops the motion instead of propelling the reader forward. Writing in scene helps with keeping track as to what goes on per scene with a little less worry over chapter length and how many chapters make up a novels first draft. Sure, the rewrite will later put them into chapters but for the get it written stage, it's okay to write the scenes instead of chapters. I fail a little with this, however, because I have a few "scenes" where I write more than one character pov but that's okay. It's a first draft.

Do you write in chapters or scenes?
Would you try the other way?


E. Arroyo said...

I write my scenes first and then go back and add "filler" information that becomes the chapter. Since I don't usually write my manuscript in a linear fashion, it helps if I have to move stuff around. At least for me. Great post!

Anonymous said...

I think because I am such a visual person I tend to write in scenes. A scene is more of a picture to me than a chapter--I think a scene is also more manageable because I don't have to be thinking which scenes and parts of scenes will fit best as a chapter. Sometimes as I'm writing I think, "That could be a good chapter break," but I don't worry about that until much, much later.

Lisa said...

Good post!

I've done both. If I'm trying to write through the story, I write through chapters. It doesn't really work.

So, when I'm in a block but have scenes running through my head so that they won't leave me alone, I'll write the scenes. But putting them together to make up a novel has always been a really difficult task for me by reason of creating fluidity.

If that makes sense.

I prefer the chapter way, but that's only if I know where I'm going. I do have the obsession as a perfectionist with doing that the best way the first time (cliff hangers, etc) but that doesn't work always, either.

Tessa Conte said...


I do both - normally I write in scenes that have been sorted into chapters in my outline.

For NaNo, it's all scenes, and out of order, too. Basically, it's a mess.

ah well.

Good luck with your personal goal!! You can do it!

Karen Strong said...

I do the same thing as E. Arroyo does. Write in scenes first and then come back and organize them into chapters. I do vaguely have an idea of which scene will go in each chapter.

I've noticed writing in scenes, it's better for me so when I get stuck, I just go to another more "exciting" scene to get over blocks.

Dawn Embers said...

Thank you everyone for sharing.

E. Arroyo - I would imagine that scene writing helps for the non-linear approach. Makes sense for sure.

Emily - That is an interesting way to explain it. Never though about the visual of a scene versus a chapter before.

Lisa - ah, that does make sense. Both approaches have their advantages.

Tessa - Oh the joys of nanowrimo and first drafts. Good luck putting the mess into order later on.

Karen - Interesting. I hear many people who like to skip to the more exciting parts. I rarely find something not quite as exciting as another when it comes to the novels, but that's just me.

J. D. Brown said...

Wow, looks like I'm the only one who prefers to write chapters. :)

When I outline, I will write scene summeries and put them in order so I know how things flow.

But when it comes to write a draft I always write in chapters. I think it's because I always approach writing as telling a story - I'll stop at a cliff hanger or tease reader with romantic tension just to jerk them in another direction at the last minute, etc. While I'm sure you accomplish this while writing scenes too, my brain just works better when thinking in terms of chapters.

I edit in chapters as well, does anyone else do that?

Dawn Embers said...

JD - That's okay. I write in chapters for the most part. In fact, I don't think I'm doing very well with the so called attempt at writing individual scenes. I have a number of them where there is a change in time, a change in view point and a change in location, all of which are supposed to indicate new scene. So, while I don't call them chapters at least half of them are anyways. Don't know how I edit yet but we'll see once I finish the YA rewrite.

Kim said...

I guess I have done both. When I write by chpater, I tend to have to title my chapters to give it a theme. In my first draft, sometimes I just flow and forget to name the chapters, but come back to it. With my current nanowrimo wip, I started with chapters, then just write by scenes. Dividing it out into chapters may be hard to do, too many POVs to keep track of. *sigh* editing is my least fave thing to do

Dawn Embers said...

Kim - Thanks for commenting. Chapter names is another topic I'll consider as I've done both named and not.

KrisDmArie said...

I like writing in scenes and chapters. I even organize my writing that way. At the top of a page I'll write scenes and number the scenes. I usually plan out chapter plots first (using separate sheets of paper or document if on computer), that way I can add the scene to that chapter.