1. divided_crown
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    divided_crown Member

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    When is a scene actually a chapter and vice versa?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by divided_crown, Dec 25, 2015.

    Hi all,

    having written mostly in the form of free writing and the odd stageplay so far, I have recently started to try my hand at something more substantial and well-plotted. In doing so, I have now stumbled into a strange issue: when plotting, I can't seem to tell a scene from a chapter.

    When I write a story in its (more or less) fully formed version from the beginning, this is easy - there's a natural flow to things, I know when it feels "right" to end a chapter, and I don't even think about scenes as units so much. Plotting the whole thing, however, I noticed that my chapter summaries actually describe scenes rather than full chapters.

    Not going into the specifics of my story, my chapter summaries read something like "Bob and Mary sneak into the guarded city at night." It's very clear, content-wise, and in the context of the story it fits the textbook definition of a chapter (same POV, cohesive timeframe, close locality), but I feel like this is very, very barebones in quantity. Sure, I could pad out this sequence until it is chapter-length, but is that really the way to go?

    I should note that I wonder if this is an issue in coming from writing mostly scripts and short fiction, i.e. formats that are very focused on a single main plotline, and that I may just be missing more side plots. Those tend to emerge naturally in the writing I'm used to.

    What might also be the case is that I'm getting tangled up in having read too many writing guides so that my understanding of a scene is just too poisoned by a wild mixture of various approaches and opinions.

    How do you go about building scenes and chapters? Do you suggest starting with scenes and then grouping them together, or does top-down work for you? Do you think that a throwaway "summary" section qualifies as its own scene? What is more important - the structure of the scene or the structure of the chapter? Do you have any other helpful advice for this helpless, flailing newbie?

    I'd really appreciate any help! :)
     
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  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I think there is an element of arbitrary in the decision. Some of my chapters are complete scenes but some of them are just good places to break a scene up.
     
  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Good questions.

    I'm not an expert, but I think of a chapter the way it's often used in conversation ...another chapter in my life is over, etc. What does that mean? It doesn't mean your life is over, but it means something you've been doing over a period of time has worked its way through many scenes then reached a conclusion. That part of your life is over. It has influenced you, so it's not separate from your life. But you've learned something, reached a conclusion, and now you move on.

    It's like you have a screaming match with your current boyfriend. That is a scene. (In all senses of the word!) Then you go away feeling horrible, but a friend comes along and gives you advice on how to make things better. That's another scene. Then you try to implement the advice, but you just end up in another screaming match with your boyfriend. After this kind of thing happens a few more times you give up and dump him. He's not the guy for you after all. That's the end of THAT chapter.

    However, you are still looking for Mr Right and haven't found him yet ...so your story isn't finished. Instead, you move on to the next chapter, and maybe decide to give up on looking, and improve your career instead. That's a scene. And while you're interviewing for a better job, you find yourself attracted to your new boss. That's another scene. And you go away and think about it, and decide NOT to screw up your new job with a relationship. That's another scene. But when you go to work the next day, there he is ...and your resolve goes out the window. End of another chapter.

    Your "Bob and Mary sneak into the guarded city at night"...and then what? Do they find what they're looking for? Do they come upon the door to the place they think it's hidden? Does somebody catch them in the act and arrest them? Do they end up in a fight and one of them gets injured or killed?

    Just showing them sneaking into a city might not work as a single chapter if all they do is sneak in. Something needs to happen while they're doing this, or as a result of doing this. They have to learn something, or confront something or find something, or do something. Something that will propel the reader into the next chapter to find out what happens next. While every chapter doesn't need to end on a cliffhanger, it does need to have a beginning, middle and end.

    If you're familiar with TV series that have an overall story arc (not a soap opera, which operates scene by scene and doesn't contain 'chapters'), think of how each episode works. You remember the conclusion of the previous episode, and then watch this new episode, which will also come to some sort of a conclusion. Then next week, you get the next installment. Each episode has a mini story arc within it that makes you satisfied at the end of it, but eager to watch the next one. Same with a book. You finish a chapter and CAN put it down there (to go to bed, go to school, whatever) but you will be keen to pick it back up again and read on. You won't feel that it's been yanked away from you at the end of a chapter, the way you would do if it was just the end of a scene. If that makes any sense.

    Think of each chapter as a complete story, that's part of the bigger story?
     
  4. divided_crown
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    divided_crown Member

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    Thanks for the replies!

    That is actually a pretty interesting guideline. It should be obvious, I know, but I feel you might have actually helped me begin to undo the knot in my brain. It makes sense to see chapters not in terms of "movements" (what happens in a place at a time?) but in terms of "tasks" (what is x trying to achieve, and do they succeed?) - or "quests", to use some gaming-lingo. So a chapter would tell the story of a goal's fulfilment, which is part of a sequence of goals that form the story. Scenes, then, are not as clearly defined by their objective but more by their purpose towards the chapter's objective (which sort of relates to Swain's Scene and Sequel model), but may of course contribute to it by having their own micro-objectives.

    Does that make sense?
     
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  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know exactly what you mean, and personally I never plan in chapters, but in scenes. Then while writing them down I decide (pretty arbitrarily) where a chapter should end and the next begin, a little like Jannert suggested. Somehow, though, I never seem to see that while plotting. :) I think it might be something you get the feel for the more you write.
     
  6. Tea@3
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    Tea@3 Contributing Member

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    Great thread, I'm glad you started it.

    I am wrestling with the same thing. I will add to the discussion that the trend in recent years (heard this somewhere, not sure) is that readers prefer shorter chapters. For what that's worth.

    I plan to try to use my chapters as a flow-device in the larger structure of the overall plot. Meaning, I prefer to think of them in terms of 'containers' to deliver the 'rise and fall' in the action. I see chapters as mini 'rise and fall' cycles like rolling hills and valleys. But of course this may not make sense to anyone but me lol.

    This may be similar to what jannert posed above, in the conclusion post.

    :)
     
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  7. Tea@3
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    Tea@3 Contributing Member

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    One more thing. I agree that it's probably 99% arbitrary:

    William Goldman says when he wrote his book 'No Way To Treat a Lady' it ended up being a lot shorter than he expected, so he divided it into small chapters so there'd be a large number of them, to give the appearance of a bigger book. :)
     
  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, definitely. I like what you said about 'tasks.' That's a good way to look at it. Each chapter should start and complete a task. The task might end up not being completed satisfactorily (ie failure) but that phase of the character's life should be over.

    I don't know if that makes sense. This is an abstract subject, isn't it? But you do get a feel for it. As you sit down to write each chapter, you want to ask yourself "What is the purpose of this chapter? What do I want it to accomplish?" That helps to center your thinking. Your chapter may unfold in only one location, so it doesn't need to change settings in order to be a chapter rather than a simple scene. Or it can contain several changes of setting. The trick is the accomplishment you're going for. What do you want the reader to be thinking about as the chapter comes to an end? Usually something significant has changed for the POV character during the chapter, and that's what you want to show.
     
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2015
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  9. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Some scenes span more than one chapter.
    Some chapters span more than one scene.

    The trick is, at the end of a chapter, to leave the reader with an overwhelming desire to read on.

    Another trick is not to worry about such divisions until your final draft. :)
     
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  10. Tea@3
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    Tea@3 Contributing Member

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    Thanks, I needed that.

    And that.
     
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