Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 10, 2022

How Many Scenes Does It Take to Tell Your Story?

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer

Of course, the easy answer is: As many as it takes. (Really helpful, right?)

The problem answer is: It depends on many things.

What Is a Scene?

First, let’s define a scene. In most stories, it’s a small section of the main book, which can be anything from super short (under a page) to super long (the entire book – although I don’t recommend it!).

A scene unit usually consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is only part and parcel of a whole book. So, a scene is basically a stand-alone piece that is a part of a much larger total. 

Example: The Hunger Games

Think about the opening of The Hunger Games when Katniss volunteers to take her sister Prim’s place during the reaping ceremony.

The reaping ceremony starts with all of the eligible girls lined up on one side of the plaza, the boys lined up on the other, and the interested spectators gathered around. Effie Trinket steps forward, gives her speech, and reaches into the jar of names, pulling Prim’s name out.

Katniss takes a breath of horror and immediately steps forward, demanding to be the tribute instead of her little sister. The scene concludes with Katniss and Peeta being marched off to be sacrificed to the Capital’s greater good.

Elements of This Scene

The beginning is, of course, where the tension builds as the setup of the drawing takes place. We (the audience) know that something bad is going to happen and know that Katniss is her sister and mother’s only protector.

The middle begins when Prim’s name is called and the shock and horror of what will have to be done dawns on Katniss. It’s not mentioned in the scene itself, since this is at the action level where thinking is not really allowed, but the understanding that a) District Twelve has only had one winner of the Hunger Games in the seven-four years, so the tribute will almost certainly die and, b) Katniss can’t feed her family if she dies in the Games HAS to be going through her head. The audience has seen enough setup in the beginning of the story to know that something terrible is going on.

The end is where she volunteers and is taken away, essentially, to die.

Scene Goal

This scene has a clear goal – to show us that Katniss has courage and is willing to die for her sister. It’s also full of tension, which sets the tone for the whole book. All together, it’s an excellent scene. I don’t know how long it is in the book without digging my copy out, but it’s no more than ten pages and probably less than that. But it fulfills the requirements.

But it’s only a tiny piece of the whole and, although it’s totally necessary to the story, it only tells a little bit of it.

How many scenes are in The Hunger Games? According to http://storyfix.com/the-hunger-games-beat-sheet, there are eighty-five, at least in the book itself. Is that too many? Too few? Or, since they tell the story perfectly, is it just enough?

So, how many scenes need to go into YOUR book?

First, consider the genre.

Different genres, by definition, need different scenes. In a four-hundred-page paranormal adventure, the scenes are normally a little longer than they might be in a 250-page urban adventure. Romance novels vary from 50,000 to 100,000 words (usually 200 to 400 pages), depending on the line. Children’s books are usually shorter, with YA being up for grabs. Which doesn’t help much with number of scenes, does it?

Then, consider the pacing.

One of the things that does seem to matter in scene length and, therefore, in number of scenes, is in the pacing. A fast-paced book with lots of action will probably require shorter scenes, which can create deeper tension. A book with a lot of introspection allows for longer scenes.

For instance, an action-adventure where there is little thinking going on by the protagonist may have four or five short scenes full of action in a row, with a longer scene where the action slows down enough for the characters to discuss what’s going on.

We see that in The Hunger Games when Katniss and Rue are in adjoining trees watching the Careers beneath them. There isn’t a lot of action but Katniss is getting information from the bad guys and the two girls are communicating with Rue suggesting that the Katniss drop the tracker-jackers on their heads. Then, the action starts all over again, and the scenes are shorter for several pages before everything slows down again.

A story with lots of introspection and little action, such as The Shack, uses longer scenes to allow the characters to have long conversations with lots of deep insights. There is action, of course, but nothing like The Hunger Games and so slower, longer, and deeper scenes are necessary to get the story told.

Bottom line: The story needs as many scenes as it needs.

Final Thoughts

My advice is always to quit worrying and write the darned book. From start to finish. Eventually, we have to stop planning and plotting and worrying about it being perfect. We just have to write it.

Then, in the editing that follows -- and I promise that editing will follow! -- you fix the problems and decide just how many scenes you need. By that time, you'll have a really good idea of what the book is about and you'll know what needs to go in it and how the pacing needs to work.

Really, the number of scenes is so arbitrary, it's hard to say until then. But that’s what keeps it interesting!

What do you think is the correct number of scenes? Do you plot out your scenes before you write the book, or do you “write by the seat of your pants” and let it flow? Please tell us about your process down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Sally

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick.' She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com. Sally is a freelance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors.

You can find her at hamerse(at)bellsouth(dot)net or www.sallyhamer.blogspot.com

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17 comments on “How Many Scenes Does It Take to Tell Your Story?”

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. If I worried about how many scenes to write, I'd never write the book. As long as each serves a purpose in the story, I write it. Yes, because I'm not a plotter, I might have to go back and cut the deadwood scenes, but I'd rather do that then fret about whether I have 60, 80, or 137 scenes in the book. Same goes for length. While I have an "about X pages" as I'm writing, my current manuscript has some short chapters/scenes, and a couple of much longer ones. As a writer friend once said when asked how long a scene should be, she said, "As long as a cat's tail" which meant "As long as it needs to be."

  2. I’ve heard so many theories on the correct number of scenes. The most logical to me seems to be a balance of the number of scenes (equaling some combination of number and length) between the different sections of the story (whether you subscribe to the 3 Acts or the 4 Parts, etc theories of sections) and if the number scenes causes the impact plot points to drag or move. I also think if people are given a specific goal of #scenes, they will start feeling the need to ‘create an extra couple of scenes’ to fit the numbers. (I think we’ve all seen posts that ask ‘ what else could my character do to fill in my page number better?’)

    Currently I’m trialing 6-12 scenes per 4 Part structure and it has been a great approach for me (so far) based on some Larry Brook tools.

    Thanks for the great post- I don’t think this get talked about enough.

    1. Thanks, Miffie! I agree that this doesn't get talked about enough. I think too many people don't just allow the story to flow. Not that I'm a pantster and don't appreciate structure -- structure is SO important! -- but tying oneself to a certain length or number of scenes is like damming up a river. It won't flow.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hi Sally,
    Thanks for the thoughts on how many scenes does it take to round out your novel. I love the answer - as many as it takes! Considerations for genre and structure of your story are great. It's a good reminder.
    Kris

  4. Great article, Sally, and good advice. In answer to your question, I both plot and pants. I start a chapter with a definition of its purpose and the elements needed. Then, I write it. Sometimes the scene/chapter follows the plan, other times it takes me in a different direction. That's my cue to stop and evaluate.

  5. Hi Sally!
    I never worry about the number of scenes and go with the flow. I'm primarily a pantser but begin with a basic idea of where the story will go and a good feel for the personality of the characters.

    I find loose outlines can work but I need to be able to have a lot of wiggle room, so strict adherence to a plot line won't work for me.
    Welcome to WITS!

    1. Loose outlines are the best for me too, Ellen. Until the story's done, we really don't know what it's about, do we?
      Thanks for the welcome! I hope to be invited again!

  6. I'm someone who is always worried about the number of scenes because I am at heart a scene writer. I can't think of a whole book,I can only think of a scene.

    My process is to write all the scenes I know need to be in a book,then go back and place them in 3-Act structure and look for the holes. I make a list of THOSE scenes and write those.

    Then at the end of it all, I make a list of the high emotion scenes and turning points and buff those out. I cut the riff-raff and let the whole thing rest . THEN I do a beginning to end edit and see if there are any more holes.

    1. Jenny, obviously that's a perfect way for you to create your story -- very similar to mine. Good for you to find something that works for you! Most new writers flounder around before they figure it out.

      Thanks for the post!

  7. Interesting question, which also implies something about the length of scenes.

    The WIP was 186K, and came in at 114 scenes divided into twenty chapters. The first book in the trilogy was twenty chapters, 167K, and the same number of scenes. The twenty chapters was a choice, but the number of scenes was not.

    I set up the progression through the major plot points, and fill in the logic of the scenes necessary to get from one to the next.

    I plot with Dramatica, a screenwriting tool, and assign points to the scenes so I know what has to happen, more or less, in each - but I don't know how until I get to writing each scene.

    I need that roadmap to know where I'm going - and it seems to work for me. But the writing of individual scenes has more of a gut feeling - with that small a unit, my brain runs the flow once I pick a starting point, and I have learned to finish a scene on something that makes the reader want to find out what happens next, and have that same desire for each chapter. Anything superfluous goes - everything has to serve the throughlines somehow. I like my fiction well-connected. Dramatica makes suggestions about order of plot points, and you end up writing a lot of small blocks in response to the prompts, and then they almost self-organize. I consider myself an extreme plotter, but many of those blocks are character-driven, as the characters and the plot are a set.

    I also do something most other writers don't, in that I write linearly, and edit each scene as it's completed, and rarely go back. Knowing the story and the endpoints makes it easier to see what belongs in a scene and contributes to that story - and what doesn't. There is still the pleasure of discovering HOW the characters are going to interact - but while I take plenty of words to find that out, I don't spend much time on detours or writing things that later have to be cut. I write 10-20 words for each I keep.

    1. Alicia, it sounds like you have a system that works for you. Good! It helps so much to know yourself enough to trust the process.
      I don't know a lot about what I'm going to write when I start -- I have a really good idea about WHO my characters are, what they want and why, and then I know what the black moment/sacrifice looks like. The rest just kind of comes as my mind works through what needs to happen. I edit as I go too but, when I get stuck, I just go back to the original information - what do my characters want?
      Good information! Thanks for the post!

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