How Many Scenes in an Act? Don’t Overthink It.

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

I told my husband I was writing an article on how many scenes should be in an act.

“As many as it takes?” he asked.

“Pretty much,” I said. “But I have to say that in 1,700 words.”

That’s mostly a joke. I do have more to say on the subject. And I intend to help you find the right per-act scene count for your novel. 

After all, you’re here because you really want to get this right. You want to write a story that seizes your reader’s attention, draws them into a world that feels real, and moves at a steady pace. And I’m going to help you.

You’re about to get actionable tips for finding the ideal number of scenes-per-act for your novel. You’ll get concrete(ish) answers, as well as tips for determining if it’s okay that your scene count runs a little high or a little low.

But along the way, I want you to remember this:

The right number of scenes is however many you need to get the job done.

Your primary goal as an author is to tell a good story. So as we determine how many scenes you need in an act, we’re going to let the story lead the way. 

Let’s start by clarifying what needs to be accomplished over the course of an act.

What is the Purpose of an Act?

A diagram of the three-act structure as a curving road with act changes at every bend.

In the interest of simplicity, I’m focusing this article on the three-act structure. This is the most common structure across all forms of storytelling. In fact, you can often find every single beat of the three-act structure in stories that weren’t even written with this structure in mind. 

In the three-act structure, an act break occurs whenever the protagonist changes direction.

In act one of The Lion King, Simba’s riding high on his princely status, absolutely amped to be king one day. Then his dad dies, his uncle blames him, and he runs away from the very future he was just singing about.

New direction.

So now we’re in act two, where Simba’s living the jungle hippie life until Nala, Rafiki, and his dad’s spirit show up to deliver a wake-up call. He decides to go back and claim his throne—another pivot.

That drops us in act three.

Each individual act begins with the protagonist going all-in on a new goal. The way they pursue the new objective reflects the traumatic or enlightening things they experienced in the previous act. Tension builds, mistakes and surprises happen, then something forces them to pivot again.

In the simplest terms, the purpose of an act is to show a phase of your protagonist’s growth. (Or in some cases, their refusal to grow.) 

Each act is the next grand experiment in your protagonist’s journey to the person they will become by the end of their arc. Like your punk phase in seventh grade. Or my Jewel phase in ninth grade. (Just kidding. My Jewel phase is ongoing and eternal.)

So how many scenes do you need for that?

Let’s break it down.

How Many Scenes Should There Be in an Act?

There are many reasons I can’t just hand you the answer to how many scenes you should have an act. Different genres, styles, and stories call for different storytelling strategies.

Literary fiction novels tend to involve longer scenes than thrillers. And longer scenes often means fewer scenes.

Then you’ve got epic, 150,000-word fantasy novels. A longer book means longer acts which translates to more scenes.

Finally, there’s the question of your own voice and style. 

Some of the chapters in The Orchardist are only a quarter-page long. Some are a page and a half but contain four scenes. This works brilliantly with the spare-but-lyrical style of Amanda Coplin’s writing and the devastatingly candid story she tells. 

It also comes out to a lot of scenes per act.

So how many scenes should be in your acts? There are two ways to answer that question.

The Mathematical Answer

A person with long hair holding books and standing in front of a dry erase board full of math equations.

Even though there’s not one “correct” number, it’s important to know what’s typical. That way, you know when your scene count is atypical. Then you can decide if it needs to be.

Start with the average word count for a novel in your genre. You can find this with a quick Google search, but let’s say you write romance, which tends to average around 90,000 words.

The average scene in a novel runs between 1,000–5,000 words. That’s a wide range and, again, you want to take into account how long scenes tend to be in your genre. 

But for our purposes here, we’re going to go with 2,000 words, based on Shawn Coyne’s suggestion that 2,000 is “potato chip length.” (Basically, a 2,000-word scene is long enough to give the reader a good taste but short enough that it leaves them wanting more.) 

So if you divide your overall word count (90,000) by your scene word count (2,000), you end up with 45, which means you need 45 scenes of 2,000 words each to complete your novel.

Great! But you wanted to know how many scenes in an act.

Working with a three-act structure, you typically want the distribution to go like this:

  • Act 1 accounts for 25% of your novel (45 x .25 = 11.25 scenes)
  • Act 2 accounts for 50% of your novel (45 x .5 = 22.5 scenes)
  • Act 3 accounts for 25% of your novel (45 x. 25 = 11.25 scenes)

As I’m sure you figured out for yourself, you’ll be working strictly in whole numbers when it comes to your scene counts. So these aren’t exact numbers. But this gives you an average that will help you think critically about your plot.

For example, if you notice that you have 18 scenes in act one, you can ask yourself if they all need to be there. Is your first act a little bloated? Is it taking too long to get into the meat of the story?

Or are you just introducing your character’s normal world in artsy little 500-word vignettes?

The Structural Answer

And just like that, we’re back to that original question: how many scenes does your story need in an act? 

Here’s what needs to be accomplished in each act of the three-act structure:

Act One

  • Exposition – Introduce your protagonist and their normal world. 
  • Inciting Incident A specific event puts the whole story in motion by giving the protagonist a new and unexpected choice.
  • Plot Point One – The protagonist chooses to embrace the opportunity presented by the inciting incident. This decision sends them in a completely new direction.

Act Two

  • Rising Action – Now in the world of the adventure, the protagonist must adapt. They build new friendships, make new enemies, and encounter unexpected obstacles. 
  • Midpoint – Something big and surprising happens. Maybe a betrayal, a twist… I don’t know, it’s your story. Whatever it is, it puts your protagonist in greater danger.
  • Plot Point Two – Everything is harder now, but your protagonist ultimately decides to move towards the danger that awaits them. (This is also when your protagonist makes the shift from reactive to proactive. New direction!) 

Act Three

  • Pre-Climax – Uh-oh. Looks like the protagonist is losing. Everything is terrible.
  • Climax – The protagonist faces their deepest fears, confronts their greatest weakness, calls on all the lessons they’ve learned, and usually-but-not-always prevails. 
  • Denouement – The reader gets to see what life looks like for the protagonist and major secondary characters as a result of the big crazy journey that just happened.

As a baseline, you want to make sure your acts are achieving those things. Now, if you’ve technically accomplished that but you’re not sure if you a) rushed it or b) accomplished it with more scenes than you needed it, this next section is for you.

How to Know If You’ve Got Too Much or Not Enough

A person with long dark hair rests their head in their hands and thinks.

First, some resources.

We’ve got a free, downloadable (and fillable!) PDF worksheet to help you outline a story using three-act structure. You can snag it here. This dives deeper into the beats I listed above so you can make sure you’ve given your reader everything they need to ride the flow of your story.

Are you the type who prefers to determine exactly how many scenes you need in each act before you start writing? Check out Doug’s guides to the Snowflake Method and outlining a chapter.  

Now, if you’ve already outlined your acts and are worried your scene count is too high, look at each scene and ask yourself:

  • Does this scene do anything to establish the world, raise the stakes, heighten the conflict, or challenge a character in a new way?
  • Is this scene relevant to an established plot line?
  • Do I feel attached to this scene because it serves the story in some way? (If you’re only attached because it’s brilliantly written, it’s got to go. I’m so sorry.)
  • Does this scene need to stand alone? (Sometimes you’ll find you can blend two scenes together to improve pacing without sacrificing vital information.)

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you can probably lose that scene.

If you think you may not have enough scenes, ask yourself:

  • Is there a logical and natural flow between scenes? Or are details missing?
  • Is it easy to track each character’s emotional journey? Does anything feel forced, rushed, or inauthentic?
  • What about character arcs? Do characters evolve in a way that feels natural?
  • Have you included subplots? Are the subplots fully developed or do they kind of just fade away?

Admittedly, it’s hard to see all that at a glance. Which brings me to my final tip:

Let Dabble Help

If you’ve never used the Dabble Plot Grid, now is a great time to start. It looks like this:

Screenshot of a Plot Grid for The Hunger Games.

Not only does the Plot Grid help you examine how many scenes you’ve got in an act, it also helps you track what those scenes are doing for your story. You can make sure every character arc, subplot, and conflict reaches its natural conclusion in the most engaging way. And you can add as many columns as you need.

Not a Dabble user? No problem. You can snag a fourteen-day free trial and test the Plot Grid for yourself (along with every other feature).

Just click here and start laying out those scenes. 

However many it takes.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.