Recently, authors have asked me several questions regarding chapters. What is a good word count for a scene? How many scenes should make up a chapter? When is a chapter considered too long?
I suspect that the authors who asked these questions wanted simple answers, but the truth is, the answer lies within the story itself.
If you are writing a thriller, the readers will expect quick, rapid-fire action. The author may want to make his scenes smaller and to place all of the events occurring within a certain time frame within one chapter. Several quick scenes equal a larger chapter.
In formulaic romance, a guideline to use would be to give the hero and heroine each a scene in the chapter. Notice, however, that I very carefully used the word guideline rather than rule. Some factors within a romance might make it necessary for a scene to have one or maybe even three or four scenes. Imagine a scene between the hero and heroine where the conflict is very intense. The scene is probably going to be a little longer than usual, and since the hero and heroine are together and the scene should be powerful enough to carry itself, then the one scene will do. Suppose your hero and heroine are in different places at the same time. In that case, the two scenes per chapter guideline might apply. But let’s throw in romantic suspense. What happens when the villain comes into play? If he needs a scene, one of two things might occur: 1) the villain may have a scene within the chapter or 2) the villain’s scene might be used as a chapter in itself to add emphasis to his or her villainy.
Another matter to consider with regard to the length of a scene or a chapter is actually psychological. If an author has written a riveting scene, the length doesn’t matter. However, let that scene drag, even the least bit, and the author will lose his audience. A few issues to consider when working on scene and chapter structure are:
1. Does each scene and chapter have a satisfying beginning, middle, and ending?
2. Is each word used in the scene or chapter necessary?
3. Does a particular scene need emphasis for the reader? In other words, does it need to stand out? If so, make that scene a chapter in itself.
4. Does each scene move the story forward? In order to determine this, an author must look at each scene as a building block in his masterpiece. Every scene must lock the one before it in place. Likewise, each chapter must lock the previous chapter in place. No meandering allowed.
So when self-editing, work hard to eliminate anything that is not necessary to the story as a whole. This will help you craft tighter scenes and riveting chapters. Remember to write each scene so that the reader is left wanting more.