Scene Length: Short Scenes versus Long Scenes

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This excerpt is from Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld. It's worth checking out if you're writing fiction!

fiction writing | scene length

Let’s talk about an issue that’s sure to rise up in your mind: scene length. One of the benefits of writing in scene form is that the ending of a scene provides a place for the reader to comfortably take a pause. You may wonder when to use a short scene versus a long scene. Once again, the decision rests with you, but we’ll take a quick look at the benefits of using either kind.

Long Scenes

Generally speaking, if a scene runs to more than fifteen pages, it’s on the long side. A scene can be picked up, read, and put back down (though not too easily!), leaving the reader with more information than he had before. Even the most avid reader wants to pause eventually, and scene and chapter breaks offer them chances to do so.

Long scenes don’t need to be avoided, but they should be peppered in sparingly. Too many long scenes in a row will cause your narrative to drag.

Use long scenes in the novel when you want to:

  • Intentionally slow down the pace after lots of action or intense dialogue to allow the protagonist and the reader to digest what has happened, and to build new tension and suspense
  • Include a lot of big action in a given scene (fights, chases, explosions)—so the scene doesn’t hinge on action alone
  • Add a dialogue scene that, in order to feel realistic, needs to run long

Short Scenes

A scene that takes place in ten or fewer pages can comfortably be considered short. Some scenes are as short as a couple of pages. Short scenes often make readers hungry for more. But remember that too many short scenes in a row can make the flow of the plot feel choppy, and disrupt the continuity that John Gardner said creates a dream for the reader.

A short scene has to achieve the same goals as a longer scene, and in less time. It must still contain main characters engaging in actions based upon scene intentions. New information must be revealed that drives the plot forward. The setting must be clear. In the short scene, you have even less room for narrative summary.

You’re best using short scenes when you need to:

  • Differentiate one character from another (a secretive, shy, or withdrawn character, for instance, might only get short scenes, while an outspoken character may get longer scenes)
  • Pick up the pace right after a long scene
  • Leave the reader hungry for more or breathless with suspense
  • Include multiple scenes within a chapter
  • Create a sense of urgency by dropping bits of information one by one, forcing the reader to keep reading

Whether you go long or short depends on your own stylistic preferences. Just keep in mind that length affects pacing as you decide what kind of flow you want for your manuscript.

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