3 Things About Writing Scenes

Yesterday I was reading Kat Caldwell’s newsletter and I was surprised at what she had to say about scene length. A scene should last no more than 20 minutes in the world of your story. That seemed oddly specific so I Googled how long a scene should be.

Talk about something that was monumentally useless. First things first, none of the results had anything to do with time keeping in the story world. They were all about word count in the story. Some people set 750-words as the average for scene length. Others stated quite firmly that a scene should be 1000 to 2000 words. Or 1000 and 5000. Or 300 and 1300. Or 15 manuscript pages.

If you can’t nail down how long a scene should be in terms of text, at least you can understand what a scene is. And that’s the first thing you need to know.

A scene is a building block.

Whether you are writing a picture book, a middle grade mystery, or a young adult fantasy, scene by scene, block by block, you build your story. One scene leads to another.

A scene has a fairly specific composition.

In each scene, your point-of-view character has a goal. Your character attempts to achieve this goal. Obstacles are encountered. Frequently, your character fails to achieve this goal. After all, if they frequently met with success, it would be a really short story. The exception to this is if your character thinks that they want X as a means to achieve Y. They are successful at gaining X only to discover it doesn’t lead to Y or that they did not want Y after all.

Sequel follows scene action.

When your character fails to meet their scene goal, they have to regroup. Sometimes this requires serious contemplation. What went wrong? What comes next? How can I still meet my goal? This is quieter and more often more introspective than a scene but it is necessary because your character needs to set a new story goal.

Sequels do not have to be equal in length to the scene. In fact, some sequels are only a few words or lines. A character who is trying to sneak into a locked room has only moments to react when they hear someone coming. Oh no, I need to hide!

This pattern continues throughout your story until you reach THE END.

So how long is the combination of scene (action) and sequel (reaction)? I still think that 20 minutes sounds strangely rigid. But the important part is that it contain a goal, an attempt, obstacles, failure and regrouping. To find out how long it is going to be, why not write it and see?