Scenes, Chapters . . . What’s the Difference?

Dear Randalf…

I chose your letter today for two reasons: 1) I have an answer, and 2) Darcy Pattison’s  “Fiction Notes” just finished an entire month of blogging about nothing but scenes and can drive home what I’m about to tell you. I know because I contributed to that blog series with a post about the important stuff hiding in the white space between scenes. My shameless plug accomplished, here’s how you wrap your brain around scenes and chapters: Scenes are the stepping stones and the chapter is the river, with the opposing shores being two different phases of your plot.

Breaking that down: Each chapter has a plot goal that moves your protagonist one step closer to the resolution of the story’s overall conflict. That means when you string your chapters together, you’ve got your full plot, start to finish. A scene is a single event with its own conflict that, when combined with other scenes, contributes to the overall goal of its chapter. Something will happen to your character in the scene that worsens the situation but doesn’t quite push the character over the edge. Example: The male lead in your story decides today is the day to finally leave his wife. That’s your chapter goal. To attain that goal, the man has three small but escalating conflicts with his wife, across three scenes, that finally push him to his Big Decision. Voila! The river, the stepping stones, and the successful crossing from one shore to the other.

Happy writing!

The Editor


  1. Thanks for including your shameless plug, because it’s a great article! I like this part:
    “What happens in the jump between scenes, the stuff that readers don’t see, is important to your character. If you know what happens, your readers will feel it.” As you say, the stuff that “simmers” in the white space between scenes. Love it.

    I think a scene CAN be contained within a chapter, but frankly, I tend to break up my scenes and end a chapter in mid-scene. This helps create page-turner chapter endings and more exciting reading.

  2. Randalf – I’m not sure why your group is complaining. Scenes are integral to a novel. However, maybe your scenes aren’t advancing the plot or the characterization. I see this often in writers who do not outline. There can be vivid, emotional scenes, but if they don’t advance the MC toward their goal or increase the conflict keeping the MC from their goal, they’re not serving the overall plot.

    Carol – Yes! I love to write cliffhanger chapter endings, too. I don’t feel I stop mid-scene; I usually stop after throwing in a twist, a surprise, or some ominous news. I love doing that! 😀

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