Scene length is the foundation for pacing in every book. Too many short scenes and you leave the story with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Scenes that are too long makes the story plod.
But how long is one supposed to be?
It’s a common question. The answer is usually something vague like “When it’s done,” or when you change locations. One published writer had this response:
How long is a piece of string?
Yup. I can feel my eyes crossing. It’s a non-answer. (But the kitten with string was cute.)
At one point I was doing the “when it’s done,” and the scenes tended to keep going and going and going. I’d end up with scenes that went on for 3,000 words. Worse, they were like a 75-word sentence. Somewhere along the way, the scene lost focus.
Turns out there is an answer.
A scene is about 1,500 words.
This originally comes out of the pulp era and you see it in the bestsellers today. Try typing a best seller’s chapter to see what the length is. In most cases, it’ll be around that 1,500 mark.
Just the right length to read in one sitting and feel satisfying. You might find one around 2,000, though. That’ll be the writer intentionally slowing down the story at that point.
Once I heard about the actual physical length of a scene, it was suddenly I had a picture frame around it. As I was writing, the scene naturally found places to stop where it should.
One of my favorite writers who does the pacing of scenes very well is James Rollins. Do you have any favorites?
With a full-time job, much of my writing time ends up being on the weekend. That’s sometimes hard because I also need to have time for myself other than going to work and then writing. But this is what my day looked like on Saturday.
6 AM – Up, and a sinus zombie this morning. The weather’s been warming up, so the pollen Death Stars started their attack. I puttered around until my brain woke up more.
Fun Memory: This book on The Waltons popped up in my Facebook stream this morning. I met the writer Charlotte Graham around the time the book came out and she autographed a copy of it for me.
7 AM – The dull and boring stuff. I did some maintenance work on the website. With WordPress’s change to blocks, I had to redo all my book pages. I previously managed to get all the covers up, including some I’d missed (yikes). But not all of them have links.
Checked the Non-Fiction page. Verified the links were all there. But this is the one page I’ll need to redo, since I was still figuring out the blocks. I was missing three books off this page!
To the Science Fiction page, I added the cover for X Marks the Spot. That’s coming out in April. Zoomed through all the links—Yay!
For all the pain of me not getting to this because my head imagined it bigger than it was, it only took about fifty minutes.
WordPress block tip: When putting up book covers in a block, only do three covers per block. If you delete an image, or add one later, the block removes all the book cover links. If you do only three, it’s a lot less work to fix.
8 AM. Close all files. Off to farmer’s market to pick up vegetables. Hopefully there will be some.
Gorgeous day out. The trees are covered with fuzz from the buds coming in. And it’s really windy. I thought I would stop off at this marshlands park nearby for a walk out in the sun. Nope, nope, nope. Way too cold still.
I did stop off at Roaches Run, which is along the George Washington Parkway. Gorgeous view of the Potomac River. If you want to see a picture of it, it’ll be on Tuesday’s newsletter.
Saw this on the road:
We fix viruses not coronavirus
Sign on computer store
It was a quick run at the farmer’s market. Alexandria was setting up for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Streets were already being blocked off. I lucked out and was able to find parking.
Zoomed n and did a happy dance. One of the vendors I like is back for the season. He and his daughter man the tables and they always have lots of good vegetables. This morning, he said, “Picked at six AM this morning.” That’s fresh!
Spoils: green leaf lettuce, kale, collard greens, celery, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, avocados, ground beef, and eggs.
9:30 – Back to some more writing maintenance. This time to Book2Read to make sure all the book links are current. This site is a link propagator that picks up all the vendors, but with all the changes like new sellers, the links need refreshing periodically. So I run a rescan.
Then a break for a while. Closing everything down again.
11 AM – Off to my favorite Thai restaurant for lunch, Kindle in hand. Sun’s really bright, and it’s still really cold and windy. When I was coming back, a lady came out of a store with her black dog (lab-sized). The first thing the dog did was steer over to me. Yup, he got some petting.
1 PM – Onto some research. This is for my next book, which may be a 3 or 7 book series. Haven’t quite made up my mind. But it’s a superhero story.
I’ve been watching both The Greatest American Hero and Earth: The Final Conflict. In GAH, aliens come to Earth and give humans a superhero suit. Motive: Prevent what happened on their world from happening to Earth.
In EFC, aliens come to Earth and give mankind technology and heal people. Motive: That’s hard to tell in the first season, except that the Taelons appear to have other goals that benefit them and not humanity. I liked how we were sure if they were good or not, and if the individual Taelons were good or not.
Researching superhero powers. Who knew there would be lists? Plus here’s the tropes. I’m definitely breaking #7. The parents are in the story. #12 also: This character does not want to do it. This is a full list of all the posts with a lot of interesting information.
2 PM – And out to the grocery store (across the street). The sunlight keeps calling to me even though it’s too cold out!
Working on character worksheets for the protagonist and antagonist. I’ve never liked character worksheets. How do you get characterization when the questions are superficial?
I also have some black holes in my skills that I’m working at addressing. I took workshops from Dean Wesley Smith for many years, but it became apparent that I’d gone as far as I could with his workshops.
Deborah’s idea is simple: Make the story simple and the characters complex. Characterization is one of my strengths, but now I’m looking at it for improvement. And I’m ready for it.
Trees crowd against the stream bank, their exposed roots like skeletal fingers. Rocks washed from upstream are jammed against the stream bank. Up ahead a giant oak groans and sways. A snap and a crack and it falls into the stream with a huge crash.
That water is still flowing down to the Potomac River. Where the stream narrows, it changes its pace to slow down. Where the landscape’s slope is steeper, the water’s pace goes faster. Then reaches that oak and the pace adjusts yet again to find its way around the tree.
And we hear the sound of the water. Through the narrow area, where the water is slow, it trickles. Or like my picture of the Shenandoah River above where it most fast, it can be a roar.
I’ve been watching Earth: Final Conflict (on Amazon Prime for free right now for anyone interested). The first season was really promising. But at the end of the story, they did a cliff-hanger—like every other TV show. The main character is seriously injured, and the show ends until the next season.
Only during that time, the actor evidently got into a contract dispute with the producers. He did not return. So the writers did a quick kill off of the character and moved on. Very unsatisfying.
.We did have cliffhangers in the old serials (Linda Stirling as The Black Whip is available on Prime). But it was Dallas’ “Who shot JR?” that started the trend today.
It also did a disservice to both TV and books. Cliffhangers like that are inherently unfair to their audience. Those kinds of cliff-hangers are designed to create buzz and ratings…but leave the reader hanging without anywhere to go.
Chapters in books have cliffhangers, too, as do TV shows with acts that break for commercials. But those are designed to build conflict and suspense. They can also be quite simple. The goal is to get you to turn the page to find out what happens next instead of going to bed.
Yeah, I had a book like that last night. Most annoying, but I was enjoying it so much😊
But when it’s at the end of the book, the writer has just told you, “I’m not finishing this story. You’ll have to buy the next one to find out the ending.”
Except now that trust with the reader is broken. We aren’t thinking about the next book to find out what happening. We’re thinking, “Is he going to do the same thing to me?”
Okay, what’s the worst cliffhanger you ran across?
Coming April 15 from WordFire Press: X Marks the Spot: An Anthology of Treasure and Theft!
Set sail on the high seas with dashing rogues, daring rebels, and wily pirates searching for treasures of all kinds. X Marks the Spot is a collection of 21 unforgettable stories about those men and women who live on the fringes of society, who are beholden to no man, no law, and who always have one eye on the horizon.
Proceeds go to the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship.
The first step is to reread the guidelines to make sure you understand what the theme is, as well as the more obvious requirements of genre and word count. On one of the calls, I was glad I re-read it. I remembered the theme wrong! I would have written a story that didn’t fit if I hadn’t done that.
Identify the Low Hanging Fruit
Ask yourself what is everyone else going to do. If it’s a call about a murder in a restaurant, the anthology will get a lot of submissions about a restaurant critic being murdered.
This low hanging fruit might even be the genre. If the theme is for science fiction and fantasy and lends itself more to fantasy, the editor might not get a lot of science fiction. Opportunity time!
Start looking for unusual directions that only you can do. When I came up with the idea for Magic Tidying in X Marks the Spot, I paired the theme of pirates with ghosts, magic, and tidying (Marie Kondo had just come out with her Netflix videos).
Hang a Lantern on the Anthology’s Theme
It should be upfront in the story and pretty obvious. It shouldn’t only appear at the end or feel like you sprinkled it in because you didn’t know what else to do with it. You should not be able to remove those elements without destroying the story.
What’s the most challenging anthology theme you’ve run into?