You’ve written the first draft of your book. Now what? You could send it to beta readers or an editor, but in your time (and money) would be better spent doing some revision work first. A chapter breakdown will help with that!
Popular depictions of revision might show a writer with a red pen slashing out paragraphs, fervently typing new scenes, or carefully rearranging pages. But none of that depicts how the writer actually figures out what to change about their story. Sure, some folks might have an instinctual understanding of what their manuscript needs, but the rest of us could benefit from doing some analysis before starting to make any changes.
Enter the chapter breakdown (you might also hear this called a chapter inventory or a reverse outline). This is a document that breaks down each chapter of your manuscript into its individual scenes. Its purpose is to give you a simpler view of your manuscript’s structure and to help you recognize where changes need to be made.
A Basic Chapter Breakdown
A chapter breakdown doesn’t have to be complicated. You can get a lot of insight into your manuscript by recording just a few key details.
To create a basic chapter breakdown, you’ll read your manuscript, stopping after each scene to record information about it. Remember, a scene is part of a story that includes specific characters acting in a specific time and place. (“Acting” in the broadest sense—a scene could be characters sitting doing nothing but talking.) A change in location, timing, or characters present could indicate a scene change.
What To Record
The Chapter and Scene Number
I like to use a decimal system to record which part of the manuscript I’m looking at. For example, 1.3 means Chapter One, Scene Three. You may have already marked chapters in your manuscripts, but if your scenes are particularly long, you may also wish to mark the scenes as well, so you can easily find the scene later using the search function. (Or if you use a heading style in Word, you’ll also be able to use the navigation panel.) When you’re done revising, you can delete the scene markers.
If your chapters don’t have many scenes, you could do this exercise just for chapters rather than scenes. But breaking chapters down into smaller blocks can help you keep track of how much movement or activity happens in the chapter. It’ll also show you where you could break up a chapter if it’s running way longer than others in your manuscript or help you reordering events if the timeline is confusing.
A Scene Summary
A scene summary is a short description of what happens in the scene. It should only be a couple sentences at most. Think, what action or event does this scene show?
If you have trouble summarizing what happens in a scene, this could mean that too much or not enough is happening. Your summaries might also reveal unintentional repetition, like the same confrontation happening twice or multiple chapters starting with a scene in which your character brushes their teeth. This is also where you might spot plot holes or errors in logic.
The Scene’s Purpose
The purpose of a scene is why the scene is present in the story. You might be tempted to think about purpose only in regard to plot, but remember that scenes can build character, establish setting, or explore themes as well. One helpful way to think of purpose is to ask yourself, “what do readers learn from this scene?”. You can start your purpose statements with “In which we learn…” or start with a verb—like “reveals,” “establishes” “introduces”—to tell yourself what the scene does.
A scene can have more than one purpose, and this is especially true at the beginning of a story when character introductions and world building are happening.
If you find that the purpose of the scene is unclear, this might be an indication that the scene needs work or that it may not be necessary. You can compare scene purpose and scene summary to see if the revelation of important details matches the action.
Chapter Breakdown Example
A basic chapter breakdown doesn’t need to look fancy. Here’s an example of a breakdown of the first few scenes from Susan Collins’s The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games Breakdown
|Katniss wakes up to find her sister, Prim, asleep with her mother, and prepares to leave.
|Introduces us to Katniss and her family, establishing that Katniss is the breadwinner/hunter. Sparks interest with mention of “the reaping.”
|Katniss walks to the edge of District 12 and out into the forest, retrieving her bow.
|Introduces us to the world of Panem and its rules: Katniss lives in a poor district ruled by the wealthy Capitol and she’s not supposed to leave, hunt, or question the Capitol.
|Katniss meets up with Gale. They eat together and discuss running away, but Katniss dismisses the idea as well as the prospect of having kids.
|Introduces us to Gale, Katniss’s hunting partner (not her romantic partner), establishing that he’s also a breadwinner for his family. Reveals Katniss is pragmatic and sees no point in imagining/dreaming, unlike Gale. Builds tension with further mention of the Hunger Games and that the reaping will leave two families bereft.
Reading the Breakdown
Because The Hunger Games is an edited and published book, this chapter breakdown shows how efficient these first scenes are. Collin’s tells us a lot a bout Katniss and her world in just a few scenes, and it makes sense that this exposition and world building happens while the action itself is relatively mellow. We learn about District 12 and Katniss’s home life while she’s merely getting up, walking, and talking to Gale. But imagine if this breakdown showed that all these establishing details were revealed while Katniss was running away from the other tributes in the arena and fearing for her life. That would probably feel mismatched.
Now, if you’re just entering the revision stage, your breakdowns might not be this clear and clean. But that’s okay! If you revisit your chapter breakdown with each revision, you’ll see it improve over time.
Tips for Working On Your Chapter Breakdown
Maximize Screen Use
Because you’ll be looking at both the manuscript and the breakdown at the same time, it can be helpful to have a monitor that is large enough to view two documents at once. Two monitors can be even better as you can have one document open on each screen.
Another option is to print out your manuscript so you can have it in hand while working on the breakdown.
Avoid Relying On Memory
If your scenes are short, you can probably read a few or maybe a full chapter before stopping to record information, but be careful. The point of this document is to get a view of what you’ve actually written, not what you think you’ve written, so don’t rely too heavily on memory.
Don’t Worry About Perfection
When doing a chapter breakdown for your own manuscript, don’t get too worried about perfect sentences or grammar. This is a working document meant to help you. It’s not something that you’ll ever have to show someone else (unless you’re an editor doing a breakdown for a client). Revision can be tough, so short cuts like point form are definitely fair game.
It’s also okay to leave question marks or blank entries if you’re struggling to summarize or define the scene’s purpose. Those incomplete entries will show you what to work on when you do your next draft. You can even add a column for notes or to-do lists if you have ideas while examining your breakdown.
Make It Fun
Familiarity with your own writing can make working on your chapter breakdown less exciting than writing new things, so do whatever you like to make it fun. Colour code, listen to music, take breaks, plan a reward for reaching milestones, start from the end and work backward—anything that gives you an energy boost or inspires you to finish your breakdown is good!