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I'm writing a short story/novelette (unfinished but at about 7k words) and I have 5 chapters already. I intend to add more content during a second or third pass.

I've been using chapters to change scene, but not all the scenes are very long and don't seem worth a new chapter.

Is it possible to change scene smoothly without changing chapters? I know I can just abruptly cut, but something feels off and jarring about doing that.

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  • 2
    Consider that Terry Pratchett never even used chapters.
    – Tetsujin
    Feb 28 at 16:19

4 Answers 4

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There is nothing saying that a chapter has to be a given size, or be a given anything at all. I've seen one word chapters, not often and several of them failed miserably to be useful but a couple of them were brilliant, and novels with no chapter breaks at all, or breaks of any kind in fact. The point is varying chapter length is common and some of those variations can be quite drastic. If you want to stick to one chapter one scene you'll have to accept some variation; if you want to use multiple scenes to minimise chapter length variances there are some simple ways to do that and some techniques that make it less jarring, the main ones are:

Always use some form of break; either the classic triple asterisk or the slightly subtler double paragraph break, to denote the shift. This informs your reader's expectations.

Lead from the old scene into the new: this works best when characters know each other, one can wonder what someone else is up to but there are other ways to link scenes including the old standby of "meanwhile...". This tells your reader where the story has gone before they have to get too far into the new scene, or even before the scene even begins.

I'm a big believer that writing is improved by good reading and S.M. Stirling is an absolute master at weaving multiple storylines together both within single chapters and bouncing around in time (both forwards and backwards) and geography between chapters without it feeling disconnected. I cannot recommend the Nantucket Trilogy and Emberverse enough in this regard.

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Typically in a novel you indicate a scene break within a chapter by centering "***" or "---" on a line by itself. (Without the quote marks, of course).

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling does this by leaving an extra blank line.

If you use "***" or "---", everybody knows what it means, and your publisher may change it to an extra blank line in typesetting to save paper space (and cost).

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    Is there a difference in meaning between a line of *** (or ---), and a blank line? (I've seen blank lines which seem to indicate scene breaks; I've also seen *** used at the top/bottom of a page, where a blank line wouldn't be easily distinguishable, and assumed that the difference was merely for that reason.)
    – gidds
    Feb 26 at 22:17
  • @gidds, I think one convention is to use a blank line in the middle of the page and "" or "---" at the end of the page (when the blank line would otherwise be mistaken as part of the bottom marginal. I'm fairly certain you should use one or the other of "" and "---" and then either all the time or only for end-of-page breaks.
    – Erk
    Feb 26 at 23:04
  • @Erk Does anyone use a blank line for a lesser break (e.g. skipping a short period of time within the same scene), and *** or ——— for a greater break (e.g. changing characters, location, and/or day) within the same work? Or are all breaks equivalent?
    – gidds
    Feb 26 at 23:20
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    Related on ELU: Is there a proper name for the 3 asterisks that are used to suggest temporal discontinuity?. The answers there suggest there are a number of names it goes by, including section/scene break, asterism, dinkus, and maybe even zareba.
    – Laurel
    Feb 27 at 20:29
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    Rowling did whatever she did. It is the publisher who decides whether it gets a dingbat or a line to indicate it. (Possibly with drop capitals, as well.)
    – Mary
    Feb 28 at 0:34
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The most important things when it comes to visual breaks in the text are on one hand the POV and on the other giving the reader a natural pause in the reading.

So, to answer your question: You can have more than one scene per chapter and you can have chapters as long or as short as you want.

Chapters aren't really that important in reading. Other aspects are way more important, but here are some thoughts:

The natural pause in the reading may be something you want, or maybe you want to be a stern taskmaster when it comes to the reader... it's of course always going to be judged in their eyes anyway. Providing a chapter break where a reader can put the book down (especially if it's a chapter ending with some kind of hook) can make it more likely they will pick it back up later.

With respect to the POV, if you have more than one POV it's important to mark when the text changes POV (unless you're doing head-hopping, then you usually cannot use visual markers in the text).

For instance, having a distinctive scene or chapter in one POV and then using a break when the POV changes are a good idea.

But if you have only one POV, nothing prevents you from creating a one-chapter never-ending flow of text with no breaks or divisions at all. Even more so when the text isn't a full novel.

If you look at Veronica Roth's "Divergent" you'll see she's very conservative with these kinds of breaks and sometimes it's even jarring.

Of course, being jarring to the reader is never a good idea (unless it's intentional).

You may need to use something in between your scenes. I call them "transports" and it could be a sentence or a paragraph moving us from one scene to the next.

While these can be helpful to create a natural flow, I also suggest always trying to remove them (replace them with a blank line, "***" or similar) and see if it works anyway. "Transports" should only be used when they are really needed...

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Could you start from why you’d want to to that?

The number of chapters should come into this only if, for instance, eight people are trying to solve seven clues in six locations, etc.

The question comes back to what’s changing and how much that matters and only the detail can really tell us whether switching from a brick wall to a picture window, with or without a corner between them, calls for a new chapter, a paragraph or a sentence… or the text can just run on.

Descriptions of different aspects of, say, a building, a person or the weather justify their own changes but what constitutes a scene, or a chapter?

Clearly the front and back of my building are different physical scenes, but in the dramatic sense, we might walk round the house several times in a single scene… even a single cine shot!

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch” is usually too large a leap but “meanwhile, at the back of the building” might still be within earshot and if you’ve told the reader there’s a window, switching to the view through it should work.

I'm saying this is a case form follows function.

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  • Why I'd want to change scene without changing chapter? I don't feel it's a big enough transition to demarcate with a chapter. Mar 3 at 12:00
  • Can you say what tells you a scene ends, and how the next relates to it? Consider the last sentence in From Russia with Love "Bond keeled over and pitched to the wine-red floor." The scuffle with Rosa Klebb is clearly over only because nothing more is said. What might come next would depend whether Bond was dead, injured, winded or faking it, and Klebb's reaction. The method of changing scene always depends on the need to, without which at might matter? Did the car run out of fuel or crash, and then how badly. As so often, form must follow function. Mar 7 at 18:12
  • It's often a character goes between two unrelated locations and I haven't got anything to write for that transition Mar 7 at 23:19
  • Everyone here could argue all night about the details yet going between truly "unrelated locations" pretty-much defines a need for a chapter break. Again, can you Post some examples? Alternatively why not just write the story, adding breaks when, where and why you like? Why not follow the rules in The Diceman? Without details, going between unrelated locations is broadly equivalent to "Meanwhile, back at the ranch…" which necessarily requires a chapter break… unless you're one of those "modern" writers who care nothing for "standard" form. Please, Post some specific examples… Mar 8 at 21:48

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