NaNoWriMo Chronicles: Chapters vs. Scenes
So, you’ve got some ideas for a plot. You’ve mapped your story arc and the basic plot is up there floating around in your head. Scenes between characters are beginning to form in your mind and you can see the various parts of you ‘what-if’ answers being answered in your plot ideas.
First, I’m going to suggest you write out your story’s plot. This can be done in one of two ways. The first is a very unstructured ‘write till it’s done’ method. Just write out your plot until it’s all down on paper. On average this will be between one and two pages. Try not to go over two pages as we’re not actually writing the novel yet, just the basic plot. This summary shouldn’t have dialogue or action sequences, just straight plot.
The second method is to follow the act list below, giving a sentence or two for each point. This offers a bit more guidance for those who find simply writing out their plot free-style to be too intimidating. Neither of these methods is better than the other as long as you get your plot out of your head and onto a paper, or word doc, or cave wall. Just get it out of your head.
Introduction to the protagonist's world
Call to action
Crossing the threshold
Mentor teaches the lead
If you’d like more information or breakdown on this ‘Act Method’ you can find it over at The Novel Factory. As I’ve said before, they are a wonderful resource for new authors.
Once you have your plot written out in a basic form, now you can start to look at each of the parts and how you need to get from point to point. Let’s look at them in two different ways that you can combine together once you're done.
First, chapters. I know, I know - you probably already have scenes in your head, but we have to start broad then narrow down. So, chapters can consist of multiple scenes, but it is very rare for a scene to be spread over multiple chapters. Chapters signal a mental break for the reader and should make them want to continue while providing them with an appropriate place to set the book down, should they need to.
So, think of your work in terms of plot points - try to break it down into smaller pieces than either your summary or act list does. For an example, I’ll show you the first five chapters from my NaNoWriMo work from last year, Among the Sands.
Chapter One: Introduction to Grete’s world - she is poor, a thief for good reason. Characters to introduce - Grete, her father, and Casimir. I don’t always list characters to introduce unless it’s important for me to remember.
Chapter Two: Grete looks for work and finds it in the Capital, somewhere new, among new people. Note: This is the beginning of the slight rising action before the Threshold.
Chapter Three: First day at the new job. She meets her first Dariian man outside of guards. She is a bit smitten with him and they hit it off well. Introduce Traven. In this chapter, I am preparing the Threshold for the character to step through.
Chapter Four: Her connection with Traven grows as her week of work comes to a close. She fights with Casimir. This is the moment before the Threshold, so the tension between her old world and this new idea of life is rising before the Protagonist has to decide what to do.
Chapter Five: Grete is given the offer of working permanently in the Capital, but she would have to move there. Unable to return to her family any time soon, but they will pay her an advance she can leave with her family so they are taken care of. She fights with Casimir again. She feels slightly trapped but makes her choice. This is the Threshold. The Protagonist has been presented with two options: move forward into a new understanding of life, or stay here and live as you always have.
So, you can see the basic break down of each chapter, giving an understanding of what needs to happen in each part to progress the story. Your story doesn’t need to take five chapters to get to the Threshold, this work is a fantasy style fiction and those oftentimes are longer and take more time to lean into as the world needs to be built for the reader to understand. Just get down a basic idea of what needs to happen from point to point.
Finally, you can begin to break your chapters down into scenes, if you’d like. Some chapters will only be one scene, while others might be three or four. It just depends on your story. Again, as an example of this, I will show you chapter five with its scenes from Among the Sands.
Scene One - The whole family is pulled from their sleep early in the morning by Dariian guards and a General arriving at their home. Grete hides the boat, fearing the man was caught for sneaking out. The General announces that her hard work was noticed at the Citadel and the High-House wishes to pay her family a large sum of money for her to come to live there permanently. The amount of money offered is huge - 10 years worth of work. They tell her she has until the morning to decide.
Scene Two - After the guards leave she speaks with her father and sister separately. Her father tells her that he wishes for her to be the master of her own fate, and to not let money cloud her judgment. Her sister tells her to do what makes her happy.
Scene Three - Again, Cas finds her on the cliff as the sun is going down. He had come to her house to apologize and her father sent him there. She explains to him that she is going to take the job. He is very upset, says she will essentially be a slave - accuses the man who gave her the boat of being the one who suggested they buy her. She gets really upset, she knows she will never really be free again, but it's what is best for her family - so she needs to do it. He begs her not to, says he will get his own ship, and that he can provide for them all. She laments that they can't wait that long - her sister is sick now and this money will set her for a long, long time. He is very upset and leaves. She turns the ship over in her hands before returning home and telling her family.
I track all of this over at Hiveword.com. This allows me to access it wherever I am without needing my personal devices if I don’t have them on me, but have access to the internet.
Take a stab at writing out some chapters and then scenes for your work. You will be surprised at how quickly and easily they can come! I look forward to seeing what you create!