Building a Novel: Scenes, Chapters, and Pacing
By Michelle Barker
What do readers want? Why do we turn to stories?
Whether it’s to be entertained, learn something new, or live vicariously in a different world, every reader is looking for immersion in the moment of a story. We want to feel like we’re standing beside the main character experiencing the exciting things that are happening to them. This is the basis of the principle, “show, don’t tell.” (We’ve discussed that topic here, here, and here.)
So, how do we get from the blah of telling to the wow of showing? By writing in scene. The scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. Ninety percent of a novel should be written in scene.
The first time someone told me that, I looked at them with utter blankness. I had no idea what they were talking about.
What Is a Scene?
A scene takes place SOMEWHERE (it needs setting—the more unexpected, the better), with SOMEONE (it needs characters, preferably ones who don’t get along), doing SOMETHING (it needs action, preferably something that will surprise your readers).
Scenes involve interaction between people—dialogue, action, thought, description. Sensory detail makes it vivid. But the most important element in a scene is conflict. In a good scene, people don’t agree. And everyone wants something. A scene always has a goal.
To keep it simple, a scene needs:
- a goal
- a conflict
- a disaster
The goal: your protagonist wants something specific (world peace and true love are nice, but when it comes to story goals, you’ll want to steer clear of anything vague or abstract). And they don’t just want it; they’re fixated on it. Actively involved in pursuing it. They intend to get it.
Conflict means that obstacles arise to prevent your protagonist from achieving this goal. Ideally, these obstacles won’t happen to your protagonist. Your protagonist’s bad decisions and dumb choices should create the obstacles.
Disaster means the protagonist doesn’t get what they want. Things get worse (they can always get worse).
Something always needs to be at stake. This stuff has to matter to the protagonist—because if they don’t care about it, why should we?
And by the end of a scene, something needs to have changed.
Writing a Scene
There are several important questions to ask when you’re planning a scene:
- Is this really where the story should go next? Think causal connections. Every scene needs to justify its existence in a story. If you can pull it out and put it elsewhere without making everything else fall apart, you’ve got a problem.
- How will this scene advance the story or develop character (preferably both)? Everything in a novel should do double duty. A description should not only be a description. It should be filtered through the eyes of someone who has a past and a goal and is in a mood—all those things will influence what they notice and how they feel about it.
- What’s at stake for the protagonist? If nothing is at stake, the scene will feel anecdotal and won’t create momentum or move the story forward. It will read like a slice of life.
- Do all the characters in the scene need to be there? Sometimes, we stuff our rooms with people who pretend to look busy while actually accomplishing nothing (the way my kids used to help in the kitchen).
- Is there conflict? No conflict = no momentum = slice of life = no story.
- What is the goal of the scene? Yes, your scene needs a goal. It needs a reason to be there, or the story will feel like it’s treading water.
Why Scenes Fail, and What to Do About It
A scene can fail for several reasons:
- You’re making a character do something they wouldn't really do. Often this happens because you’re working with an outline that focuses primarily on plot, ignoring the fact that the protagonist drives the action and not the other way around. If you’ve already decided where the story should go, characters be damned, you’ll end up with scenes that make your characters feel inconsistent or inauthentic. Instead, take a step back and consider who your character is. Think about why they’re doing what they’re doing and whether it’s consistent with who they are.
- You’ve forgotten about the other people in the room. If you’re going to put them there, give them a job. Let them make trouble. If they have nothing to offer and are just there to collect their allowance (see kids in the kitchen), boot them out.
- You’ve forgotten to add setting and/or sensory detail. This is one of my most frequent comments in the margins of a dev edit. Keep one foot in the physical world. A reader can’t visualize a scene in a vacuum.
- There’s not enough at stake—or the reader might not know what’s at stake. A scene can’t just be there to move us through breakfast. There has to be a reason for it, and that reason must either contain or create conflict. It doesn’t have to be life or death, there don’t have to be guns, but conflict must be there in some form or else it’s just toast and jam… in other words, boring. Don’t be afraid to tell the reader what’s at stake. Yes, a lot needs to be shown in a novel, but stakes are one thing that can be told.
- Nothing has changed by the end. Transformation is the backbone of nearly every novel. A protagonist must have a goal that they’re trying repeatedly to achieve—but things keep getting worse for them instead of better. That’s what keeps readers turning pages—the fact that things keep changing. Circumstances change and characters act. They will have emotional reactions to the things that happen in a scene so that by the end of it they’re not the same as they were at the beginning. If the emotional climate remains exactly the same throughout an entire scene, the scene will feel flat.
The Elements of a Chapter
If the scene is the fundamental unit of fiction, chapters are more of an organizational tool that relate to both structure and pacing.
There’s no real right or wrong when it comes to dividing your novel into chapters. A lot comes down to instinct and will depend on the particular rhythm of your story.
Some scenes naturally belong together in a chapter:
- Scenes that take place during the same block of time;
- Scenes that are told from the same point of view (especially in a novel that deals with alternating storylines and/or multiple points of view);
- Scenes that occur in the same place.
Chapter length should not be a random decision. The length of a chapter affects the pacing of your book. The shorter your chapters are, the quicker the pace. Longer chapters will slow your story down. This is not to say one is better than the other. Too many short chapters can make the work feel jumpy, while longer chapters allow readers to make deeper connections with your characters.
A chapter can be made up of one scene or several. It will begin with a hook—an immersive and compelling start. It will have an arc and continue with rising action. And it will end with tension in some form—but not necessarily a cliffhanger. Too many of those feel gimmicky. Tension at the end of a chapter is more like leaving the story door open. A chapter should end with something that makes the reader want to turn the page. You don’t want to end with too much resolution. Give your reader something to worry about.
At the end of a chapter, something in the story should be different. If you can pick up that chapter and move it elsewhere without there being dire consequences, it means you’ve forgotten about causal connection and have likely written something anecdotal.
Putting One Chapter After the Next: Pacing
Pacing is the speed at which the reader travels through the story. In his craft book, Thrill Me, Ben Percy likens it to peaks and valleys. He suggests thinking of your novel like a topographical map. You don’t want it to look like Saskatchewan, but you don’t want one Mount Everest after the next either.
Typically, the opening comes with a peak to hook the reader and make them want to read on. But usually, that peak is followed by a quieter moment that allows the reader to consider the implications of what just happened. In essence, you’re giving your reader a chance to catch their breath and find out what’s at stake. The quiet moments are just as important as the loud ones. Quiet doesn’t mean no tension. If the tension isn’t front and center, it should be simmering in the background.
And so it goes—peak, valley. Drama, rest. In this way, you create a balance of physical and emotional beats—external and internal conflict. Too much non-stop action is exhausting. But when you let your characters sit around and think for too long, you kill the momentum of your story.
Every Novel Has Its Own Rhythm
When it comes to pacing, every story has its own demands. A romance novel will look different than a thriller. It’s worth experimenting with things like chapter and scene length to get a feel for what works best for the story you want to tell. In one of my novels, I shook up my long chapters and made them much shorter and snappier. I was surprised by the difference it made.
This is one reason why it’s a good idea to read novels in different genres. They’re often paced differently. Notice what you like (and dislike). Notice where you put a book down—and why.
Remember that built into pacing is the concept of momentum. Regardless of the genre, scenes that contain conflict, chapters that build and move the novel forward—that’s what will create the magical immersion that keeps your readers eager to find out what happens next.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.