Pacing: How long is a scene?

Cute baby cat between pastel colored balls of wool in a basket looking up
Gratuitous cat photo

IStockPhoto by MirasWonderland

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?

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Additional Reading

The Ides of Cliffhangers

You ever have a book that you wanted to throw against the wall because the story ended with a cliff-hanger?  Yeah, me, too. 

Rugged cliffs, and beach at the shoreline of the Montana de Oro Park in Central California
This is Montana De Oro Park, a beach in Central California that I’ve been to many times. It just looks like a place for pirates to be coming ashore–and there is a cave!

Istock Image by Yulee

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?

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How to Write Chapter Cliffhanger Endings.  From Cheryl Reif.  This has some really good examples of different kinds, including some I hadn’t thought about!

Time Markers in Fiction

Have you ever run into a book where the time became wonky?  Like the writer forgot that time was actually kind of important to the story?

Melting clock over a stack of hard-backed books.
Time Concept. Distorted soft melting clock on the old books. With dark toned foggy background. Selective focus

Photo from iStock Photo.  Image by Zeferli

My own experience was reading an urban fantasy.  I was reading through and then it suddenly hit me that the characters had a 72 hour day!  The writer had lost track of the timeline entirely.

It’s easy to do.  At a convention I attended, an editor talked about continuity for middle-grade books.  He reported that it was very common for characters to get up each day and go to school.  No weekends for the kids!

Establishing Time Markers

Time markers are elements that identify the time frame the scene happens in.  It can include:

  • Seasons: Since it’s winter in Virginia, mentioning that it’s February and maybe a late winter snowfall.  Or the first buds of spring popping on the trees (which I’ll probably see in March).
  • Time of Day:  This can be done in a variety of ways.  Your character’s stomach growls and he realizes he missed lunch.  Or describing the light in some way: The rays from the rising sun painted the horizon pink.  You could even hit the basic version: That night; at nine a.m.; it was nearly dinner by the time…

The markers should happen at the beginning of a scene, like an establishing shot in a movie.  It’d be kind of bad to have the reader think the scene is in the morning and then halfway through, one of the characters starts talking about the stars in the sky.  Just takes them right out of the story, and annoys them besides.

How do you establish time in your scenes?

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More Reading

2017: The Year of Craft

In 2016, I published 22 ebooks (might have a couple more before the end of the year).  That’s an astounding number, and I want it to be higher next year.  The only way to make money as a writer is produce a lot of writing (as opposed to writing one book and have it become a best seller.  A best seller has a shelf-life of probably a month).

But I also don’t do well with typical goals that most writers set.  Like writing X words a day.  Or writing X books in a year.  The last time I set a specific goal like it, none of it happened.

So it’s a different goal: The Year of Craft.

I’m still working out that means in how I will be doing things in the new year.  Then I’m a pantser, and it’s discover things as I go along!

Things I’m not doing this year

  • Submitting to anthology deadlines. Okay, I’ll probably still submit to a few of them, but I get pummeled at work by deadlines every month and I just don’t need that on the writing side.
  • I will not take workshops to for learning how to fix a writing problem.  The whole writing culture is about “Your story is born broken, you have to fix it,” and for pantsers, they’re told even worse.  I’ve treated craft I’ve struggled with as something to be conquered, sometimes with a battering ram.  That’s going to stop.  It has to. It’s  very frustrating for me when I write and ruins the fun.

Things I’m doing this year

  • Taking four workshops.  I’ve got four workshops planned out:
    • Advanced Character Dialog: I’m actually taking this because I’m really good at characterization and I’ve largely ignored any skills because of that.
    • POV:  This is another advanced class, because I want to play with the POV.
    • Cliffhangers: I want some better understanding about how to end my chapters in an exciting way.  Sometimes writers think that it’s bad to do a cliffhanger because they think it means “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” at the end of every chapter–not as something to make the reader turn the page.
    • The last one’s open.  Might be Pacing or B Story.  Haven’t made up my mind.  Could also be a new workshop that shows up that piques my interest.
  • Studying best selling writers.  I’ve been typing Michael Connelly’s first three chapters of The Reversal and learning a lot.  Typing the scenes is like an artist painting a Monet.  It’s amazing.  I see things that I didn’t when I was reading.  It’s also a relatively low cost, and enjoyable, method of learning.
  • I’m branching out into other genres, like Mystery, and experimenting with series.  I never thought I could do a series until I wrote Crying Planet.  Before I got to the end of it, I wrote a short story with the same characters, which placed Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest.  Then I got an idea for the next book (which is either called Cursed Planet or Lonely Planet).
  • I’m going to try writing in groupings of something.  Like I did a mystery story set in Morro Bay, so I’m going to try writing other stories set in Morro Bay.

Finally, Crying Planet is coming in January, my first science fiction novel.  And it’s a series!  I never thought I would be able to do a science fiction story, let alone any kind of series.  I’m just waiting on it to come back from the copy editor.

A shuttle departs from a spaceship on the cover for The Crying Planet