At the level of structure, writing a novel is like a construction project. Understanding the basics will allow you to use imaginative architecture. (Image: public domain.)
How should we writers construct our chapters? Inevitably, the process starts with scenes. Some authors create lengthy scenes and simply make the big scene into an entire chapter. Novels constructed this way can seem slow moving, weighty, and dull, although skilled writers have made this work throughout the centuries that novels have been written. Writers of a more commercial bent often turn out short scenes and declare each little episode a little chapter. We have all seen the numerous genre books with three-, four-, or five-page divisions. While conceptually simple, and conducive to a fast-paced story, the scheme looks and feels crude. Most writers use multiple scenes, separated by spaces or asterisks, to assemble each medium-length chapter. This most popular arrangement combines reasonable pace with satisfying variety and complexity.
Write enough scenes to reach the desired or planned climax for the chapter. If you end up with too many scenes and your chapter is becoming too long, reconsider what you need to accomplish and look for places where there is already a nice climax and end the chapter there. Do not try to do too much in any one chapter. Only experience can help you here. Get in there and give it a try!
For those using multiple scenes per chapter, here is a way to think about chapter and scene structure: A chapter is an episode that has a “local” climax aimed at moving the story towards the novel’s greater climax. The novel’s climax is the resolution of the hero’s dilemma. Therefore, each chapter is a step along the way. Not always a step forward, mind you, but a step nonetheless. All good story telling depends upon dealing the hero a number of setbacks.
At the next level down, a chapter is an assembly of what might be termed super-scenes, each with a minor climax. In its turn, a super-scene is an assembly of scenes, each with some kind of closure. The minor climaxes of the super-scenes build towards the chapter climax, they gradually complete the episode laid out in the chapter. When it ends, readers must sense that the chapter has accomplished something. They should feel that the story has been enhanced and moved forward. The closure at the end of each scene builds towards the minor climax of the super-scene. More easily grasped from a picture than text, the whole thing is hierarchical: