How Many Scenes Should Be In My Novel?
While us writers have our heads filled with creative ideas, wondrous places, incredible characters, and future bestsellers, sometimes we must stop and think about the technical side of writing. We have to ask questions like how many scenes should be in a book?
That’s a perfectly valid question, and one that doesn’t come with a very clear or objective answer—my least favorite kind of answer. But worry not, because we’re going to cut through the fog of subjectivity and figure out the right answer for you.
Because, like many things in our art, the number of scenes in your novel is whatever works best for your book. There are some best practices, which we’ll cover, but you’ll hopefully know how many scenes your book should have by the end of this article.
So let’s figure that number out.
What is a Scene?
Before we can figure out how many scenes you want in your novel, we need to establish what a scene is. Here’s a basic definition for us to work with:
A scene is a section of your story where a character does something, somewhere.
Kinda—or super—vague, right? But it sort of needs to be. Let’s dissect the definition to clear things up.
A section of your story - Scenes are the building blocks of your book. One or more scenes can create a chapter, and many scenes will form your entire book.
Where a character does something - Something can really be any form of action: a sword fight, a conversation, sneaking into a spooky house, running from the scary grandma who lives in the house, getting captured by the scary grandma, etc. Like all good writing, the something should push your plot forward.
Somewhere - Each scene takes place in a setting.
Now we’re going to dive into scenes a little deeper.
How Long Should a Scene Be?
This is going to be one of the determining factors in how many scenes are in your novel. In modern commercial writing, scenes range anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 words.
That’s a pretty big range.
To find your sweet spot in that range, think about your genre.
Horror and thriller stories might have longer scenes to draw out the suspense and fear through details and slow pacing.
Young adult novels and action-adventure stories could use shorter scenes to appeal to their reader or up the tempo of your fast-paced action.
Scene lengths will vary throughout your book, too. In an epic fantasy, for example, a scene with a hero entering a new town might be longer as they explore, understand the atmosphere, and figure out where to go next, while regrouping with their party at the local tavern might just be a short interlude before the next quest. Or you might want the opposite.
The trick, as with a lot of writing, is to study your genre and the successful authors within it.
“Potato Chip Length”
Shawn Coyne, one of the biggest names in editing with a ton of bestsellers under his belt and author of The Story Grid, wrote the “perfect” scene length is 2,000 words or what he refers to as potato chip length.
He calls it that because it creates the same effect as eating some chips: you get a good taste, but not enough to satiate you. Thus you read more to try and get your fill. And then suddenly it’s an hour later and you’ve read five times more than you thought you were going to and the bag of chips is empty.
This doesn’t mean every scene should be 2,000 words. That would be monotonous and would leave some scenes feeling drawn out or, more likely, shaved down too much. But keep the potato chip length in mind when writing your average scene.
Scene Writing Tips
Before we determine how many scenes are in a novel, here are a few tips to keep in mind when writing your scenes.
Treat scenes like short stories - As a general rule of thumb, scenes should have a beginning, middle, end, and some sort of conflict, obstacle, or change. They’re like mini stories coming together to create your bigger story. If a scene isn’t structured like this, ask yourself why and how it might benefit from a revision. Or if it even needs to be there at all.
The core elements of a scene - Like we covered above, each scene has a character or characters doing something, somewhere. That means each scene will have characters influencing the plot within a setting. All three of these elements are important to a successful scene.
Time your scenes properly - Becoming a scene expert means knowing when a new scene should start. Keep it simple by remembering that any of the following can trigger a new scene:
- Changing the setting
- Changing the time
- Changing the focal storyline/subplot
- Changing the focal characters
- Changing the POV character
How Many Scenes Are in a Novel?
Now that we’re armed with all that scene knowledge, let’s figure out how many scenes will be in your novel.
I hope you like math.
The average novel these days ranges from 80,000 to 100,000 words. If we take our 1,000-5,000 word average scene length, that can range from 16 scenes (5,000-word scenes in an 80,000-word book) to 100 scenes (1,000-word scenes in a 100,000-word book).
Obviously that math doesn’t account for any kind of variation in scene length, but look at the huge discrepancy when using averages: anywhere from 16 to 100 scenes in an average book.
If we go with potato chip length, you’re looking at more like 40 to 50 scenes in a book. So, if you’re looking for “averages,” then you can assume that the average book has around 40 to 50 scenes in it.
Scenes in the Beginning, Middle, and End
Sure, we can just stop at averages, but I don’t want to send you away with just that. So let’s take a look at how scenes are distributed across the beginning, middle, and end of your book.
No matter which story structure you’re using—the three-act structure, five acts, seven acts, hero’s journey, etc.—your story will have a beginning, middle, and end. And, if we go back to our averages, you’ll find that the vast majority of scene counts break down like this:
- Beginning: 25% of scenes
- Middle: 50% of scenes
- End: 25% of scenes
Using our averages, that means you’re looking at approximately 20 scenes in the first and third acts and 40 in the second.
Does that mean your story must be split up as 25/50/25? Absolutely not. But most books end up somewhere around that spread.
Bear in mind that some scenes are more or less mandatory for your story. Many beats include multiple scenes, but some that are only a single scene include:
- The inciting incident
- The midpoint
- The pre-climax
- The climax
That’s not to mention any specific story beats you might be using, depending on your structure or preferred writing style, nor does it include multi-scene beats like the exposition, rising and falling action, and so on.
How you fill the other scenes in your story is up to you. Just remember our scene writing tips and to always be pushing your story forward with each scene.
Manage Your Scenes with Dabble
Now that you have some more information about writing scenes, scene length, and how many scenes should be in your story, it’s time to actually write those scenes.
If you’re more plotting-oriented (like me and the rest of the cool kids), you can use Dabble’s Plot Grid to map out your scenes ahead of time, ensuring that you aren’t overloading a single chapter with too many scenes and ensuring you’re starting a new scene at the right time.
If you’re more of a pantser, I’m sure you’re still cool, don’t worry. You can use the Plot Grid after you’ve explored your way through your first draft to make sure you haven’t filled your book with 200 scenes and the ones you have are divided properly across your beginning, middle, and end.
And you can get access to the Plot Grid and all Dabble’s premium features for fourteen days, absolutely free, with no credit card required to get started.
If you want to try out a novel-writing platform that makes the process more enjoyable and easier, click here.
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