A student asked me this question a week or so ago, so I thought I’d address it here. Novels are divided into chapters, and chapters are designed for the reader. They provide good stopping places. Sometimes a chapter is a whole scene, a partial scene or several scenes.
When a writer wants to create suspense, they might put a chapter break in the middle of a tension filled scene which will keep the reader reading just “one more chapter” (we’ve all been there!). Or, a writer might put several distinct scenes within one chapter. When writing a longer piece, I suggest writing all the scenes first, and then dividing the whole story up into chapters.
This brings me to the question, what is a scene? Scenes tell the story. They often have a mini-plot structure in and of themselves. The main character will often have a goal and obstacles to overcome in a single scene, and the same scene will also get them closer to or further from their overall story goal.
Scenes will have action, description, and dialogue. They may be multiple pages or two paragraphs. They sometimes switch between point of view characters. Sometimes the main character will spend lots of time reflecting or deciding what they’re going to do, but in YA novels, this reflection is most often embedded in the action so as to avoid slowing the story down.
The best way to understand the difference between scenes and chapters is to read like a writer and review your favorite novels to see what makes up a scene.
What do you notice? Share it in the comments below.