Some writers like to use their chapter transitions to change the scene, like scenes in a script. In this case the chapters are often short but can vary in length because it depends on how long it takes the action to play out in that scene. That said, writers might have a chapter/scene length they’re particularly comfortable with and most of their chapters will hover about this length, though this is not guaranteed. Even writers that use chapters as scene breaks will sometimes break a scene into multiple chapters if they feel it is getting too long to suit their style so you don’t have to stick purely to one way to break a chapter.

A change of scene can include moving from one location to another, time passing or we may class it as a change of focus. In the case of the change of focus we might include a change in narrator, as some books use multiple narrators split into separate chapters such as in Game of Thrones, so the time and place might not change but the perspective does which changes the scene. We may also include changing focus if, for instance, the character hasn’t moved location or time but has changed their focus. An example of this might be in a party scene where our protagonist speaks to one character then to another. This might not sound like a dramatic chapter change but we may have Speaker A tell the protagonist something like their partner is cheating on them with Speaker B leading to a confrontation. Plus, as I said in the previous article, a change of chapter need not be dramatic one because not all stories lend themselves to dramatic cliff-hanger chapter endings and even those that do don’t have to all the time. We may have a slower segment in a thriller story where the protagonist is catching their breath before the finale or similar.

Arguably using scene breaks to change chapters might be the easiest way to form chapter breaks in a first draft as it can make it easier to move scenes around during editing than if they’re hidden in the midst of longer chapters. Just because we use one form of chapter break in the first draft doesn’t mean we have to stick to it, during editing we can meld chapters together, move them around or delete them entirely. We may even decide not to use chapters at all, but more on that later.

A disadvantage to this method is the temptation to make scenes longer than they need to be so the chapters don’t become too short if you don’t want particularly short chapters. Just because some writers have chapters that are less than a page long doesn’t mean all writers have to be comfortable with very short chapters, particularly if we feel they are wrong for the story we are telling. A particularly short chapter can create emphasis on what is happening in it but just because we have a short scene doesn’t mean we want to create emphasis on it. That said, breaking most of the chapters by scene doesn’t mean we have to break all of them, we can still stack scenes and move through them to create longer chapters. When we say a story should be consistent we don’t mean precise chapter lengths but rather that the story should be your story rather than one that has been forced down routes that don’t match the story you’re trying to tell.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on narrative structure see Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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