Scene & Chapter Workshop


Happy Monday! I know. I’m sorry. I should be shot for that. It’s day fourteen of NaNoWriMo and you should be at 23,338 words! Almost halfway through your new (or revised) novel. Don’t feel bad if you’re not. Mostly because I’m not that far either. I have a bit of catching up to do, but moving on!

Today let’s talk about building a scene or chapter. Now, some people may have one scene a chapter and others the whole chapter may be comprised of one scene only. Whatever your style, let’s work on what makes a scene tick.

The W’s

Who, what, when, where, and why are the five questions you often heard in primary school. There’s a reason for it. Before you start your scene take a moment to answer these five simple questions. When building an outline place the answers to these questions at the top.

Who’s in the scene? Even if the reader doesn’t know it’s helpful for you to. Name everyone, even if you don’t have a name for them yet. You can say “milk man #12”, but be sure to identify everyone with a speaking or interacting role with your main character. It helps to keep track of minor characters for reference later on in case you need them to fill another role.

What happens in the scene? Write one sentence explaining what takes place. Try to be a little detailed though. If you write “Ben and Jerry talk” then it may be better to say instead “Ben and Jerry talk about firing their accountant.”

When is the scene taking place? This can depend entirely on the format of you novel. If it’s a journal be sure to include the date and year. If it’s a regular novelization, be sure to note the time of day. If it’s a string of events where you jump around it’s even more important to make a note of when it takes place within that timeline.

Where is this happening? The answer to this question can be as broad or detailed as you like. It all depends on your predetermined setting. If it’s in a castle or another large complex building, it may help to say which room. It can be the library or the study or the west wing. Remember it’s organic for characters to interact with what’s around them. The more detail you place in the setting the more natural it is for Dave to sit on a couch in the living room than if the reader assumes he’s in the kitchen. Jarring your readers from organic movement can interrupt flow and take them out of the story.

Finally we get to why. Why is this scene taking place? Is it necessary? Ask yourself if the scene actually moves the story along. Determine the scene’s purpose. It’s okay to have a lull scene if it’s imperative to moving things along, but otherwise it might not be necessary. If Ben and Jerry discuss firing their accountant, but the accountant isn’t important to the story at all, what purpose does it serve? Remember though, for a scene to have purpose it doesn’t have to move things along. A scene can serve the purpose of character development. It can serve as a medium to show your readers what kind of person your main character is. If you have a scene early on in your novel showing Margaret helping an elderly man cross the street, then it won’t be surprising if later on she helps someone else out.

Cut, Paste, Combine

This is a tactic I find myself using when writing my own novels. I’ll have several scenes and eventually realize they’re drawn out, a bit long, and can really slow down the flow of the story. I still will find the content necessary, but not in the same capacity. If you have a scene where a brief conversation takes place, can you cut it out entirely and replace it with paraphrasing in the next? For instance, instead of having the scene where Ben and Jerry discuss firing their accountant, perhaps in the next Ben and Jerry are having tea with their mother and mention it in passing. We then know the accountant was fired, but don’t have to read through the conversation. Why take pages to say something that could be paraphrased in one sentence?

This doesn’t apply to pivotal or climactic scenes of course. You don’t want to tell the whole story, but show. However, you don’t need to show simple things like checking the mail or talking about where to eat. The only time I suggest showing micro-actions is for the purpose of character development. To show your readers what kind of person they are. So whenever possible, cut out lull scenes that serve no real purpose. Especially if the point of that scene can be added in another briefly. You can also add these organic micro-actions to the scenes that are pivotal if you want them included without clogging up your story arc.

Put It Together In Order

This is merely suggestion. As always. Start with your character within in the setting. I try to open up with that in the first sentence of a new scene. My good friend Mary would always yell at me about not setting the character and place at the beginning of a chapter or scene. At the time I didn’t understand, but with experience now I do. It wasn’t through my own writing I realized it, but in reading the work of others. It took me a bit to understand that I didn’t like it when I didn’t know where we were and who we were reading about. So, begin with your character and where they are and, if applicable, what they’re doing. The rest is up to you. Well, actually it’s all up to you. As I said this is a suggestion.

Building Your Chapters & Parts

Something else to determine is how you’re going to divide up your book. If you figure it out early it’ll make scene building and story arc creation easier. It’s easier to set up a pace if you have a sort of guideline. So, are you going to do chapters? Is your novel in journal format? If it’s in a journal format, perhaps you can consider doing the chapters in years. A chapter for 1789, 1788, and so on. If not, it can be done by character age or month depending on how slow or quick your timeline is. If it’s a regular novelization, you have many options. In my own novel I have parts. In each part I have scenes which could be regarded as chapters or almost mini chapters. I personally call them scenes.

What’s the difference between a scene and a chapter? A scene is like a happening. A chapter is an arc in which those happenings occur. Chapters are smaller arcs within the larger of a part. And of course then you can have parts to arc into the entire story. Is that official? Heck if I know, that’s just how I think of it. It’s a matter of building. I like to think of things in those terms because they’re less overwhelming. If you only have to build a scene at a time it’s a less daunting task. If you only have thirty minutes in a day to write, then building a scene rather than an entire story seems more manageable.

Until Next Time

I think other than telling you what to actually write, this is as much detail I can go into for scene building. It’s a matter of organization of your content. We went over what you need in the scene, if the scene is necessary, how to tighten up your scenes, and how to build your chapters and parts. It is Monday after all and my brain capacity caps out much quicker than normal. I hope this helps and as always, these are suggestions. I will never assume my way is the best way, but hope that maybe it can open up your creative or organizational process to other ideas. Anything to keep you writing!

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