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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