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Stonemasons building a cathedral

At the level of structure, writing a novel is like a construction project. Understanding the basics will allow you to use imaginative architecture.

How should we construct our chapters? Some writers create lengthy scenes and simply make the big scene into an entire chapter. Novels constructed this way can seem slow moving, weighty, and dull. Other writers 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 chapter. This most popular arrangement combines reasonable pace with satisfying variety and complexity.

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 graphic than text, the whole thing is hierarchical: