Questionable: Scene and Chapter Length

Questionable

 

CarolC asked: How long should a scene be? Is there a preferred length? Is it okay to have an occasional scene that is really short? Or long? And what about chapter length? How do you decide where the chapter ends and another begins?” Short Answer: There is no recommended scene length or chapter length. Long Answer: A scene is a unit of conflict, and in a linear story has beats and turning points just like the overall plot. For a longer definition of scene, go here. Scenes are the building blocks of story, and their content and placement in the story determine their optimal lengths. A chapter is an annoying break in the narrative that has no useful function and must be countered because it screws up the story. Chapter length is usually determined by its placement in the story (in my world anyway). Chapters are a pain in the ass. CHAPTERS So let’s get chapters out of the way first. Chapters came about because stories used to be serialized a long time ago. Like Charles Dickens a long time ago. They have stuck around because. (You know when you asked your mom for something and she said no and you said why? and she said “Because”? That’s why we have chapters.) So the key to chapters is to get rid of them, but publishers and readers like them–GOD KNOWS WHY–so you have to fight against them by ending them at a turning point in mid-scene so the reader has to turn the page and keep reading and does not use the chapter end as a good place to go get a cookie and never come back. The only advice I have on chapter length is to make them increasing shorter because they become part of the rhythm of the book. My beginning chapters are usually around 6000 words and the ending chapters about half that, but it’s not something I obsess over, and I obsess about everything. I don’t even put chapters in until I have a later draft done because there’s no point since my word count moves around like ferrets in a bag. Chapters suck. SCENES Scenes, on the other hand, are delightful. Scenes have shape and meaning and move story, scenes are worth studying and rewriting and talking about. But what you want to know is, how long should they be? As long as they need to be to establish and resolve the conflict for that scene without running so long that people begin to get tired. The reason a book is not just one long scene is that when something goes on too long, readers wander off. They think about other things. Like “This scene could be shorter.” If they are not distracted by something shiny–“Oooooh, look, a new scene!” they will leave you. So a scene has to be as long as necessary but not one word longer. That’s not a lot of help, is it? So go back to basic scene structure. What does your protagonist want? What steps is she taking to get it? Who is blocking her? What steps is that person (the antagonist) taking to get what she needs? How does the scene escalate? Who wins? Then cut everything that’s not in service to that. The catch comes in defining what’s in service to the conflict. These are people we’re talking about, so you need the stuff that personalizes them, helps the reader to understand why they have the reactions they do. In other words, you’re going to need character cues in there as you move the plot. Then where and when this is scene is taking place has a huge effect on both the action and the characters, so you need setting cues as you move the plot. And then there’s the foreshadowing you have to do to set up future scenes and the details you have to put in to echo previous scenes, but those also have to move the plot. Then cut everything else. That’s how long a scene should be. Oh, and also scenes should get generally shorter as you move toward the end of the book because that picks up the pacing. That doesn’t mean that all the scenes in the last act have to shorter than all the scenes in the first act, but that in general, things happen more quickly. That usually happens on its own because you got all that set-up out of the way in the first act and all the complications out of the way in the second and third acts, so you can spend the last act speeding toward the climax, but sometimes you get this terrible urge in the last act to sit down and explain everything. Or at least I do. That’s okay, write that scene. And then cut it, put a stake through its heart, bury it in the backyard, and pour salt on it. It must not rise again. So if you have a scene and you’re not sure how long it should be, identify the protagonist and antagonist and their conflict and break it down into beats. Then pare away everything that isn’t essential to plot, character, and setting for the reader at this point in the story. Go here to read about beats. Example: Protagonist: Nita wants to help her brother. Antagonist: Button wants to keep her in the car and, if possible, get them both the hell out of Dodge. Before the scene opens: Nita gets Button to drive her to the scene because she’s drunk. 1. At the scene, Nita realizes that she’s not just picking Mort up, it’s a crime scene. If Mort wants her there, she needs to understand it, but she’s drunk. Meanwhile, Button needs Nita to not get out of the car, not call attention to herself, and–please, god–SOBER UP. So she gives her coffee. Turning point: Nita opens the door to get out of the car. 2. Button delays her by asking questions, shoving more coffee on her, while Nita fights through the fog to figure out her best course of action. Turning point: Nita opens the door to get out of the car. 3. Nita’s opening the door draws the attention of Frank, and Button seizes on him as Plan B, he can bring Mort over. Turning point: Mort opens the door to the car and gets in. Clint follows. 4. Nita finds out Joey’s dead and opens the door and gets out of the car. Button gives up and follows. Just that outline shows me where there are big problems (see Nita’s passivity in 2 and 3), but it’ll also help me to get rid of a lot of stuff that just doesn’t belong. (Well, that and your critiques.) Scenes rock. (Note: As we all know, it’s important to wait 24 hours before responding to critiques. (You can, however, go swimming right after a critique.) So tomorrow I’ll talk about Nita and your comments and my plan for revision along with using the scene to talk about scene length and the things discussed here and in the comments. Assuming there are comments.) (Hahahahahahaha.)

24 thoughts on “Questionable: Scene and Chapter Length

  1. The best thing I’ve ever learned about scenes was from the commentary for Leverage’s “Double Blind Job.” (S03E05) A portion of the episode takes place in a restaurant, and the commentary points out that the “scene” that takes place at this location is 4-5 minutes, which is FOREVER in TV-time and pacing. But it works because in story pacing, there are three conflict units happening, and they denote it visually with the camera positions and character blocking.

    First, Sophie and the baddie have a conversation, in which the baddie gives his Evil Speech of Evil about his motivations. The baddie is in the (perceived) position of power, signalled by camera angle, their styling, and lighting.
    Sophie leaves after requesting the baddie’s jacket, drawing the baddie to her former position at the table. Nate slides in to where the baddie was sitting. A second conversation takes place between Nate and the baddie, and now Nate is in the position of the power, and the camera is shooting the conversation from the other direction. Nate’s alias threatens the baddie.
    Nate leaves, and Sophie returns, the camera returning to the original shooting direction. The baddie is distraught because of Nate’s threats, Sophie is fresh and unfazed. Since the baddie is where she was sitting, she takes the other chair Nate vacated, the position of power. She returns the baddie’s jacket. Seconds later, we learn that Sophie put a button cam on the jacket, so she really was in the position of power.
    And the sequence, as a whole, is thus its own three-act structure. Fractal storytelling is the best.

    It’s the most subtle thing. I never would have noticed it if it weren’t for the commentary, but it’s really brilliant directing of a scene that could easily have been executed in a boring way.

    So that’s visual cues to show conflict unit delineation. In text formats, this would probably be accomplished by a shift in the narrating perspective’s mood. One attitude while talking to a character, changes to another as they ruminate on the implications of the conversation, changes to another when they make a decision on how to act on the information, changes to another when they engage with another character.

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    1. Leverage does not get enough credit for how brilliant so much of it was. It gets reduced to clever, and it was clever, but it was also very, very, very smart.

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  2. “Button wants to keep her in the car and, if possible, get them both the hell out of Dodge.” What kind of car does Button drive? If it is a Dodge, then she appears conflicted to me. (Stay in the Dodge car – get out of Dodge) – Sorry, I live in Michigan and am looking for a new car.

    Also, you know us to well. I say this in response to the laughter at the thought that we wouldn’t comment, which I chimed in on.

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  3. I ignore chapters. I even find that I ignore quotes or other bits authors put under chapter headings so that I can get to my story. GIMME STORY DAMMIT!!

    Some are nice and interesting diversions but I tend to only care about on a third re-read.

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    1. Yes, I am a “Chapters? there were chapters?” kind of reader, unless they’re the kind of chapters that are a story on its own, as in “In which Pooh and Piglet find a Woozle.”

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  4. ROFL. Note to self, never ask Jenny how she really feels about chapters. 🙂

    Thank you for this! It’s a lot more helpful than “all scenes should be 2000 words long” would be. I will no longer worry (at least not much) over how long or short my scenes are. I will just concern myself with what’s in them. I’m looking forward to seeing what else you have to say about scene tomorrow. Thank you!

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  5. I have a high level of appreciation for chapters.

    As a kid I would ask if I could read “to the end of the chapter” whenever I was asked to stop reading, in that way I could read so much more than if I had said “to the end of the page”…

    As an adult, it’s a sop to my conscience whenever I’m in the middle of a book and I’m actually supposed to be doing something else, “just to the end of the chapter” get’s me so much further. 🙂

    Completely understand why, as an author, they’re a pain in the proverbial…

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  6. I love the three coffees. It says a lot about Button and a lot about Nita. I am a terrible critic because I love this Chapter so much. Where is SEP to rip it out of your hand?

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    1. No, no, it’s better now that I’ve tightened it up. Good enough to leave in place until I get to the end of the draft anyway.
      I’m happy with it as a placeholder and I’m working on the next scene now.

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  7. I totally agree that a scene should be whatever length is needed, and I hate chapterizing my books (usually do that in my final draft). For those who like numbers and spreadsheets or patterns, though, I think it can be a useful exercise to take a look at your favorite authors in the genre you write in, the ones who inspire you and who are doing things “right” for the way you experience story. See how long their scenes are, how they break the chapters, and whether the scenes are a consistent length throughout the book or, as is likely, they get shorter as the book nears the end.

    If you find a pattern, i.e., all of your role models ALL have scenes within a certain narrow word-count range, then you can see if you’re near that range and if not, try to figure out why not. You could well have a good reason, but it wouldn’t hurt to make yourself justify the length, just to be sure it really is a good reason. And if you find that there is no pattern among your role models, then that’s good to know to0. And while you’re at it, you can look for other structural patterns, like the turning points and where they fall in your role models’ stories and compare them to where yours fall. They don’t have to match (or come close), but again, if they don’t, it might be time for some soul-searching.

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  8. On the history of chapters: novels had them for about 150 years before the rise of mass-circulation magazines and the serialized novel. I haven’t checked, but I have a feeling that for Austen, for example, they correlate to scenes. But you’re right: it was serialization that married them to the cliff-hanger ending, for some writers.

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  9. I actually find it fascinating that chapterizing (where it’s done as we go along, and not after the fact) in the Dickenesian sense is still well and alive today. Most obviously, TV or webseries episodes where season-plots are still heavily serialized. The new age of binge-watching is going up against social media making live updates also more popular. Video games are getting in on the model, too, releasing things in episodes. It’s easier and more profitable for an in-depth study of something (on radio or video) to be broken up over days, rather than released in one documentary feature film.

    But more relevantly, chapterizing for text stories is most alive online, in fanfiction, or blog-posted fiction, where things are posted in installments. And something about the act of browsing on a screen seems to make this desirable. The AO3 fanfiction archive offers a “put all chapters on one screen” option, but I don’t prefer it. People write to the format, so some the writing optimizes to have natural chapter breaks. (It might also be influenced by fanfiction seeking the emulate the source material, so something based on an episodic source would tend to have those kinds of endings and interludes, as well.)

    Do you have an opinion on those “scene break” lines in books (where you get more than just the regular separation between paragraphs), and if they’re any different from chapterizing?

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    1. It’s especially interesting to consider how TV writers are forced to specific time constraints on their acts/chapters by the requirement for commercial breaks. When this meant 4-act and 5-act episodes, this usually dovetailed with storytelling anyways, but now some shows have 6 acts, and it’s been quite interesting to see how writers adapt to that. (most of them argue that it’s been detrimental, of course) Comic books, too, have a specific page count per issue, and they have to write and panel to fit.

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      1. I think the problem with six acts is that it’s just too damn many turning points in one hour. The viewer feels jerked around (and she’s right because those breaks are in there to sell her stuff).

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  10. blah blah blah end of scene

    —-~*~—-

    new perspective character for same scene/sequence, or new scene blah blah blah

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      1. In your collaborations, it’s those little drawings that indicate a change in POV. Although I am so word-focused that I totally did not notice the little guns in Agnes and the Hitman, or the butterflies and whatnot in The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, or the symbols in Dogs and Goddesses. They all just registered to me the same way a couple extra lines of white space do, as signals of some kind of shift.

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        1. The little symbols in D&G were a signal; each of the three women had her own symbol, so when the POV shifted, the new POV was signaled by that character’s symbol. As I remember, the butterflies worked the same way. SMP just added the guns on their own (but we really liked them).

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      2. I’d call these section breaks; they’re used in non-fiction as well. Most usually styled by an extra line-space with the text full-out rather than indented to follow (just as it should be at the start of a chapter). A section break usually denotes a break in time or a change in perspective (or topic, in non-fiction).

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