Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

National Novel Writing Month is at the halfway point. I’m closing in on 30,000 words. I’m nearly 5,000 words ahead of where I should be. So why am I so worried?

I’m running out of scenes. My story is headed rapidly toward its climax and I still have 20,000 words left. I vowed from the beginning I would not concoct scenes strictly to “pad” my word count. That is, I would not create meaningless scenes just so I could reach 50,000 words. I’m sticking to that promise, but I find myself wracking my brain to come up with realistic scenes that fit into the narrative. I’ve come up with a few good ones that still need to be developed.

My dilemma got me thinking of this question: How many scenes does it take to finish a novel? A quick research project on the Internet yielded a lot of theories but no clear answers. Randy Ingermanson, who maintains the site, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/, wrote a thoughtful post about scenes. Here’s what Randy wrote in part: “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 that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little. How would you have written the scene differently,” he wrote.

Building on Randy’s suggestion, watch your favorite sitcoms or TV dramas and count the number of scenes. Or watch your favorite movie.

Raymond Obstfeld, in his excellent book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, offers this advice on scene length: “Nothing about writing is exact, which is why it’s an art, not a science. Although the best length of a scene depends on its purpose, there’s no rule that any particular purpose should be a specific length. The importance of a scene is not a guide either. Sometimes the most crucial scene in a story may be the shortest to give it the most impact. Therefore, when we discuss length, don’t think of pages; think of attention span. Specifically, “long” is when the reader’s attention span wanders and he either wants to skip ahead or stop reading. “Short” is when the reader feels frustrated because he didn’t experience the scene so much as get a synopsis of events.”

Ian McEwan’s fine novel, On Chesil Beach, presents an interesting case study. The focal point of the novel is a single night: the wedding night of the main character and his new wife. Both are virgins and both are terrified about their lack of sexual experience. The scene plays out over multiple chapters, with flashbacks that describe both characters’ upbringing and their courtship. I haven’t counted the number of scenes in On Chesil Beach, but one single scene played out over the course of the night is the lynchpin of the novel.

My scenes tend to run about 1,500 words, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. One crucial scene in my first novel extended over several chapters and ran about 7,500 words. Using the 1,500 word rule, if you take a 90,000 word novel and divide it by 1,500 words, you would need to come up with 60 scenes. So I guess I’m looking at a total of 33.3 scenes for a 50,000 word novel, but there are no rules.

How do you approach scene development? How long is your average scene? And does it matter?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

  1. If you’re running out of scenes, did you start writing without an outline? If so, that’s courageous! I could never do that.

    Generally, when I outline, I have more scenes than I need but it’s still a path, a direction. And as I get into the details of the scenes, I tend to combine plot points from several outline scenes into one. Is that what happened to you?

    Irv

    • Irv,
      Thanks for your comments. I did work from an outline consisting of about 15 major plot points. From there I have generated about 20 scenes. I have also begun writing the last scene out of sequence. This is something I’ve never tried before. Since this is murder mystery, I’m writing this scene from the point of view of the person who committed the murder, or in this case, two murders. I’m also playing around with scenes involving the main character’s childhood and a major event in a secondary character’s childhood that relates to the crime. So there are a lot of moving pieces here. I’ll keep you posted. Thanks again,

      Chris

      • A full blown out murder mystery novel! In 30 days?! What guts!

        Irv

      • Irv,
        Thanks. It’s either guts or stupidity. I’m not sure which. I had the basic “whodunit” part worked it in my head a long time ago, but as I started writing I came up with the idea of adding a second murder that flowed from the events following the first one. Now I am constructing scenes to make that more plausible. It is what you talked about before–the discoveries we make during the writing process are a great joy to writers. I’m at 28,701 words with 14 days to go.

        Regards,
        Chris

  2. Hi Chris, I was going to suggest writing from the end backwards but I see you’ve already been exploring this trick. How is it so far? Also love Obstfeld’s astute observation to consider scene lengths in regards to a reader’s attention span….I will have to check out his book. Keep writing, I’m sure you will find your way!

    • Nancy,
      Thanks for your comments. Obstfelt’s book really helped me. I could never find the right balance among dialogue/action/narrative in scenes and I struggled a lot with scene length. The book clarified a lot of issues for me. It was published by Writer’s Digest. If you’re a subscriber, you could probably get it on sale. I bought it on sale for $9–a bargain! My nanowrimo project is moving along. I’m writing the last scene out of sequence because it’s a murder mystery and I have to work out the ending before I go back and revise to make sure I’ve left enough clues, but not too many. I’m up to 28,701 words. Are you doing nanowrmo this year? Best of luck with your current project.
      Chris

  3. I love anything that Randy Ingermanson says. If you come to the end of your book, you could always write an epilogue–that goes on and on!

    ~Debbie

    • Debbie,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not crazy about epilogues. I hated the one that ended the Harry Potter series, but loved the one that ended the Steig Larssen trilogy. What I’ve been doing with my Nanowrimo book is to write some scenes out of sequence to see if they work and that in turn has sparked some new ideas for plot twists. It’s challenging and fun to write on such a tight deadline. I’m at 30691 words.
      Chris

    • Debbie,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not crazy about epilogues. I hated the one that ended the Harry Potter series, but loved the one that ended the Stieg Larssen trilogy. What I have been doing for Nanowrimo is to write scenes out of sequence. This has in turn sparked some great plot twists. It’s amazing how one scene can lead to another and your story can gain some traction. My word count is 30691.

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