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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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!
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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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