G B Ralph, Author

When scenes become chapters

Throughout the drafting process for my cosy mystery novel – placeholder title: Milverton Mysteries 1 – I’ve been working in scenes. But as I prepare to bring in some fresh eyes, it’s time to organise these scenes into chapters.

I’ve grouped some scenes, split others, and otherwise set about ending each chapter with the reader hopefully wanting more. This is the result…

Scenes

Bar chart: Scene word counts in Milverton Mysteries 1
Note: the book opens with scene 12, then jumps back to scenes 1, 2, 3, etc.

Chapters

Bar chart: Chapter word counts in Milverton Mysteries 1

Scenes vs chapters… what’s the difference?

Scenes are like shorter stories in their own right, each with a beginning, middle, and an end. They build up, one after the other, to create the entire novel-length story.

Chapters are story segments, designed to direct the reading experience. Chapter breaks act like commercial breaks on live TV which come at fairly regular intervals, every ten minutes or so. These breaks may come mid-scene, with some things unresolved, or even at a cliff-hanger. A nice incentive to keep you hooked so you don’t switch the channel, or put the book down.

And so, I tend to write in scenes to make sure I’ve got everything I need. Then, as I approach the end of the process, I figure out where to place my chapter breaks. Sometimes they line up already, sometimes they don’t.

How did I get to this point in the writing process?

The cosy mystery novel I kicked off in November for NaNoWriMo has been through a few rounds of edits now. I kept track of daily progress throughout that month, wrapping up the first draft just in time to discuss the process on The Bestseller Experiment podcast on 10 December. I left the manuscript to stew for a few weeks over Christmas/NYE, and then picked it up again to take through rounds of self-edits.

At this point, I’m happy with how the story holds together and how it reads. It’s almost ready to let someone else set a fresh pair of eyes on it! But first, I needed to transform it from a series of scenes into chapters.

Going back to the start, I only managed to squeeze in a couple of days’ preparation before diving right into the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel. My plan for the story’s plot and the journey I wanted to take my characters on was not much of a plan – it consisted of a bunch of bullet points and some character outlines, that’s it. These bullet points became the brief scene summaries, helping to keep me on track while writing the first draft and ensure I didn’t lose my way.

Having my scenes listed like this was so helpful when it came to making structural changes, and functioned as excellent summaries so I always knew where I was. But now that I’ve pushed through line and copy edits, it’s almost time to pass on to others and I didn’t want to be giving away the upcoming plot points with each scene’s headline summary!

I needed to organise my scenes into nice, digestible chapters. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve grouped some scenes, split others, and otherwise set about ending each chapter with the reader hopefully wanting more. You’ll notice looking at the bar charts that while scenes varied from around 500 to 4000 words, my chapters generally came in closer to the 1500 to 2000 word range. Hopefully this will help give the impression of forward momentum for the reader and they’ll want to keep moving through the story! Here are the charts again for reference:

Bar chart: Scene word counts in Milverton Mysteries 1
Note: the book opens with scene 12, then jumps back to scenes 1, 2, 3, etc.
Bar chart: Chapter word counts in Milverton Mysteries 1

As a reader, do you enjoy shorter, sharper chapters? Or longer, more leisurely ones? Or, do you like variety in the length of chapters? And if you’re a writer, how do you approach scenes vs chapters? Drop me a message on the socials or via my contact form – I’d love to hear!

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