Is there a rule on how many scenes your novel requires? What are the typical number of scenes in a novel and how do you know if you’ve got too many or too few?
David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am finishing up the scene list spreadsheet you recommend in the snowflake model for writing fiction. I am super excited to move on to the next stage, the actual writing. However, I have found that I only have about 60 scenes, and you mention that you normally have over 100 for your novels. Is this too few? Do numbers of scenes vary greatly from novel to novel? Am I possibly not understanding something about scenes that I need to know? I have a page estimate of 320-350 pages, so the novel won’t be short. Furthermore, the scenes I have outline the plot well, I’m saying I don’t think I will need a whole lot more scenes. Should I be concerned?
I know you have addressed what a scene is in some detail, but I’m worried that I might be puting too much in to my scenes if I have to few of them in the finalized scene list.
Randy sez: Different writers are different. Some writers have chapters that average only 2 or 3 pages long. Others are much longer. Since each chapter contains one or more scenes, that means that scenes can be very long or very short.
I’ve written scenes that were less than 100 words. I’ve written scenes that ran longer than 3000 words. On average, my scenes run about 1000 words, which is four double-spaced pages. Since my novels typically run over 100,000 words, that means I end up with about 100 scenes.
There aren’t any rules on the scene length, as long as the story works. You should write the scenes to the right length for your story.
I would guess that most novels have anywhere from 50 to 200 scenes. It might be an interesting exercise to go through some of your favorite novels and count the number of scenes. But a far more interesting exercise is to look at individual scenes and ask why the author wrote it to that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little? How would you have written the scene different?
It’s always easier to analyze somebody else’s work than your own. But analyzing theirs will help you when you go to write your own.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
David Flamm says
This was my question, and I’m pretty excited you answered it. It’s pretty validating to see your question on here. I completely agree with you, the scenes need to fit the story. I have trimmed my 60 scenes to 53 and am now in middle of writing chapter 22 of 30. My scenes tend to be between 1200 and 3500 words with between 1 and 3 scenes a chapter. The progress is coming along fine and I anticipate a little over 100K words for my first draft. My fear of having too few scenes has been something that has continued to plague my process, but like I said, it’s coming along fine and the scene count appears to have been appropriate. I completely intend to count the number of scenes in the next novel I read by the way, it should be an interesting exercise. Thanks for all the help, you’re a fiction God send!!
B. E. Berger says
I’m writing a first draft of a novel, post by post, on my blog. Each post is a scene — and they have varied from 300 words to 1800. Like you, I find they usually hover around 1000 words. I just posted Scene 28, and I estimate I’m a third to halfway through the novel’s arc. Thanks for your information — I feel I’m on track because of it.
Aaron Linsdau says
Be careful about posting your entire book on your blog. If you want to try and sell it, most publishers will consider it published and will reject the book outright. It’s great to build excitement for the book but don’t give it away. We’ve had to reject authors because they’ve already posted the whole book, so the cat was out of the proverbial bag.
Good advice, Aaron.
Nicholas Tozier says
“It’s always easier to analyze somebody else’s work than your own. But analyzing theirs will help you when you go to write your own.”
Amen. Among other websites, I run a resource for songwriters and I was just talking about that the other day on the blog: that it pays to critique other writers carefully and well.
For one thing, it forces you to know the craft well enough to be able to clearly express its finer points aloud.
And for another, sometimes we’re blind to our own shortcomings until we begin recognizing those same shortcomings in the work of others.
Karen Cioffi says
Useful information. I especially like the exercise suggestion. Thanks for sharing.
the writer says
If you have read any novel by Mario Puzo, especially The God Father, you will know how to select number of scenes for your novel… in fact the number of absolutely required scenes
Tammy Bowers says
I learned this year that it also depends on the genre and publisher. I sent my romantic suspense manuscript to an editor last summer and received a 17-page letter of changes that they wanted before they would consider it. One major change was the number and length of each chapter. They wanted 20 chapters of approximately 3000 words. There were several scenes they wanted cut. As a new author, I am happy to make any changes they want.
Judy Baker says
Interesting article. I’ve never counted how many scenes I’ve written in a manuscript, I should. It won’t be too hard for I use a chart listing all the scenes that takes place in each chapter. Judy
Very good insight. 60-200 scenes sounds right for novel writing. Movie screenplays usually have between 30 and 55 scenes which make sense because when a novel is adapted to a screenplay, it’s usually cut down considerably.
James Thayer says
Here’s a pretty good rule regarding scenes. Whenever the point of view character leaves one place to go to another, a new scene is usually needed. A scene usually takes place in one location. It doesn’t jump from one place to another. A single locale is one of the clearest demarcations of a scene. For example, here is the last sentence of chapter 3 of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain: “He took up his packs and set off again walking.” Here is the last sentence of chapter 8: “The blue one, that brighter one, is Venus, Ada said, as she and Ruby turned up the road to Black Cove.” The character leaves, so the scene ends. And whenever the time (the story “now”) of the story leaps ahead to a new time (say, an hour or a day or a week later) a new scene is usually needed. So the number of scenes needed in a novel can often be determined by the number of times the venue changes and/or the number of times the time frame moves forward.
Your comment interested me John and spawned an observation/question significant enough to call attention to here. (Perhaps this might strike up a debate or perhaps Randy might chime in to clarify his thoughts on this?)
Your comment about a scene being devoted to a single location is, I believe, a traditionally held belief. But what I gather, from Randy’s article on writing the perfect scene, is that a complete scene is about the emotional sequence from Goal, through Conflict and Disaster, to Reaction and Dilemma, and ending in Decision. It seems like an interesting challenge to consider writing the sequence of that emotional landscape while passing through different settings. In this case, location is more about setting (similar to Simon’s comment below) and not determined specifically by the scene. Scene composition becomes about emotional landscape then. This insight of Randy’s, by way of Swain, has been a eureka for me. So, I thought I’d share it here in relation to your comment. Cheers!
Belated reply, but hopefully this is still of use to someone: The “scenes” Swain refers to in the scene-sequel approach aren’t necessarily the same thing as the scenes being discussed here and they don’t always correlate. A Swain “scene” can take place across multiple scenes of a novel (for example if a conflict takes multiple scenes to address before it reaches disaster). More rarely, an entire scene-sequel or more can take place within a single scene if the pace is very rapid.
Very helpful information. Thanks James
simon harris says
I have to agree with this.
I just got back from a conference where this was discussed by an agent. His take was 4 pages for scene is nice tight writing, anything over 9-10 pages probably has to much static description and should be edited down. So one of the top agents says 4-10 pages is a desirable scene length.
There are always exceptions though! He helped me edit a prologue and thought the best length was under one page, like anything else in writing the rule is know the norm so that when you break it you can justify why you did.
Pacing is also dictated by scene length, so longer scenes could mean a slower paced novel, think literary fiction. Suspense novels tend to have shorter scenes. Fantasy longer scenes for world building.
Also to add to What James said depending on your POV you may change scenes while staying in the same place and time in order to change to a different characters perspective if you write in intimate third person.
Thanks, Lisa! This information helped me shape the outline of my current work.
Thanks, Lisa! This information helped me shape the outline of my current work. ^^
When you told about ‘scenes’ you also meant the emotional ‘sequels’?
Plus, ‘scenes’ occur from character+plot+setting?
Additionally when we talk about setting, it means both the time and the location?
In response to B.E. Berger, how is it that you go about posting your novel on your blog? Isn’t that a good way to get your unfinished work stolen? Or is that not a big deal. I’ve been writing for a long time,since elementary school actually, but I have just began creating my first novel that I intend to get published. I’m just curious, and eager to learn any tips I can pick up along the way.
Aaron Linsdau says
It’s not that the novel will get stolen. The risk of discovery is too high. The theft concept assumes that someone is going to know the characters as well as you (the author) do. They won’t. Then a publisher will figure out it was stolen sooner or later. There’s that pesky “original, unpublished work” clause right up front in contracts. That means the person purportedly doing the stealing will have to willfully enter into a contract under false pretenses. They’re liable to the publisher, editor, person they stole the work from, etc.
The bigger issue is once you’ve put your whole book on your blog, the best you’re likely to do is self-publish as a compilation. We as publishers won’t pick it up because it’s already been published on your blog. Unless it’s an amazing success and someone is willing to license the rights, you’re dead in the water for having it published.
Dwight Swain gives excellent advise on writing scenes by thinking of them as, scenes (Active) & sequels (Reactive), which are further broken down into, MRU’s (motivation; reaction units). Mr. Ingermanson discusses this in greater detail on this site and in his book, Writing Fiction for Dummies.
If James is right – and I do think he is – then how the guy with the 60 scenes has only 60 scenes? 🙂