I’ve run across a problem recently when writing my work-in-progress. I’m writing scenes of wildly different lengths. Some scenes are a couple of pages long. Other scenes go on for 10 or 12 pages. This bothers me because I believe ideally that scenes should be of relatively equal length. Which leads to another discussion about chapter length, but that’s a topic for another day.
Before we tackle scene length, let’s discuss how to develop a scene. There are so many great resources for fiction writers on scene development. Here’s a good overview from Janice Hardy’s excellent Fiction University blog that focuses on the process of writing a scene.
My friend, Cathy Yardley, expands upon the three elements a scene must contain: Goal/Motivation/Conflict. And she adds a fourth element—Disaster. The sturdy Goal/Motivation/Conflict template that many writers employ is a tried and true approach to scene drafting.
KM Weiland, in her blog and craft of fiction books, goes beyond the Goal/Motivation/Conflict structure and discusses the concept of Scene/Sequel. Each scene leads to a sequel. The scene portion contains a goal, a motivation, and a conflict, but Weiland adds a fourth element, Reaction. And that’s where the Sequel comes in. In the sequel portion, Reaction leads to a Dilemma for the character, which leads to a Decision. And that decision leads to a new Goal. She was written extensively about this concept, but here’s a basic overview. This post features a helpful Info-graphic.
Let me share my process. I start by deciding on a scene goal. What is the overall purpose of the scene? What am I trying to achieve? How does the scene advance the story? What is the goal of the featured character in the scene? I say featured character because each scene is not necessarily told from the POV of the main character. Though there is some disagreement on this point, I believe every scene should be told from the point-of-view (POV) of a character. When choosing a POV character, I subscribe to the adage that it should be the character most affected by what happens in the scene. What’s the POV character’s goal? What’s the POV character’s motivation (both internal and external)? How will the conflict arise? Who, or what, will be the cause of the conflict? Does the conflict arise naturally from the preceding events or actions?
Next, I ask myself how two questions: how is the conflict resolved? Should the conflict be resolved at all, or should it be deepened? Or, should I make things worse for my character? That’s what keeps readers interested and deepens the story. If every conflict gets resolved to the satisfaction of the main character, it makes for a very short, and boring, story.
Now that we’ve gone down the rabbit holes of process, structure and scene development, let’s get back to my original question. How does a writer determine the ideal length of a scene? The short and easy answer comes from some advice I received years ago and I don’t recall the source. The advice was this. “A scene should be as long as it needs to be to achieve its goal.” That answer doesn’t provide much in the way of specific guidance on scene length, but there is some wisdom there. So if you’ve got a scene you believe is too short, ask these questions:
- Does the scene clearly define the goal in a way that the reader can understand? Does the scene goal advance the story?
- Have I adequately shown the motivation of the characters in the scene, not only the POV character, but those who stand in the way of the POV character achieving her goal?
- Does the source of the conflict arise organically from the events or actions that have preceded it? Have you laid the foundation for the conflict through foreshadowing or earlier events? If the conflict comes out of the blue, will it be a major part of the story going forward?
- Will the conflict be resolved by the end of the scene or will it deepen? If it is resolved, will its resolution lead to new problems or obstacles for the main character?
- Apart from questions related to Goal/Conflict/Disaster, there are “logistical” issues the writer must consider. What is the setting where the scene takes place? Does the setting enhance the impact of the scene? For instance, if there is a long simmering family feud, does it boil over at mom’s wake? Or at a family reunion or otherwise joyous occasion? Who is in the scene? How much time has elapsed since the previous scene? Are there actions or other factors that will impact the scene (a car chase, geographic barriers, etc.).
What I’ve found is that when I get to the revision process and discover a scene that’s too short, I haven’t fully developed the elements of the scene. Scene development is a complex topic. Books have been written about it. It’s impossible to cover the topic in a single blog post, but I hope I’ve answered the question I posed.
Do you struggle with scene length? Are you finding your scenes are too short? Too long? What are you doing about it?