© 2003 by Robert J Ray

The scene is the basic building block of the novel, but beginning writers often assign that role to the chapter. Their next step is to make an assumption that could mean trouble. The assumption goes something like this: “Okay. Since Ann Tyler wrote 20 chapters and made The Accidental Tourist, all I have to do to make a book is to write 20 chapters.”

The assumption, from the beginner’s point-of-view, is not illogical. When you open a book, there’s chapter one. You read on, there’s chapter two. The chapters are numbered in sequence, chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, to provide the reader with a sense of progression.

But–the chapter is not a basic building block for your novel. The chapter is a unit of division, a handy way to collect scenes, to group them together for a particular purpose in the story. Purpose, knowing what you’re doing, is the key to building solid chapters.

Because scenes contain drama, you know how important they are to the energy of your story. To build chapters, you have two choices:

  • use one scene as one chapter
  • combine scenes to make a chapter

The underlying assumption for the writer is to know what a scene is and how to write one. You can view this mix as a recipe for cooking up a chapter. Like a recipe, you change the ingredients to match your purpose and your needs for the novel. For example, if your story needs more drama, you add more scenes. If you’re coming off a dramatic moment, and there are some things left unexplained, things the reader really needs to know, then you slow down, changing the pace of your story while you take time to explain.

But even in a chapter where you’re slowing down, changing pace to explain things, you still want to build to a climax.


  • 1. To build a chapter, you knit together two or more scenes that have a common thrust.
  • 2. To build a chapter, you explore the motives of at least one major character.
  • 3. To build a chapter, you focus on your climax, making sure that when you reach the high point, everything is in place for a big change. When you build a complex chapter, knitting scenes together, you open up some room for character development.

Cutting to the Next Scene

To move between scenes the writer has to understand the relationship between cutting and plot tracks or subplots. Cutting is a good technique for you to learn. Try it when you start building chapters.

Scenes and Chapters

You want to write scenes for your novel because they contain drama. Drama — often called entertainment — is what audiences pay for and you can tell from a read-through by your writing friends whether you’ve captured drama or not. If your scene is too short, your drama feels choked off. If your scene runs too long, the drama sags and your audience wanders out to the fridge for an egg-salad sandwich. Writing scenes trains you to compress and crystallize, good discipline for a writer. If you write scenes, and if you test them out on your friends, you’ll improve quickly.

The best way to write scenes — whether you’re just starting out or whether you’re an old pro — is to work in stages, from the sketch through the parts to make the whole. You start with a sketch of a scene, noting on a piece of paper the time and place, the temperature and season, the lighting, character, purpose, point of view, climax, and curtain line. The sketch gives you an outline of a scene, the bare bones. Knowing the climax of the scene (or of the chapter or of the book) enables you to write clear and hot and clean.


Some writers write one scene and call it a chapter. Others combine scenes to form complex chapters. To build a novel, you combine your scenes and your chapters into a structure, an organization of dramatic parts that delivers a moment of release and/or satisfaction and/or completion to the reader. The organizing structure of the novel is plot.