How Long Should a Scene in a Novel Be?

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Goodness knows how many times I’ve advised you to cut the fluff in your novel. But there is such a thing as cutting too much. If your goal is “as short as possible!” you might end up cutting more than the fluff—important stuff like character development and symbolism.

So wouldn’t it be better to aim for a specific length—like a range of words? But what range should we aim for? What are successful authors doing?

I decided to find out. I pulled seven novels off my shelves for my research. I tried to choose a good variety: the publishing dates ranged from 1859 to 2012, and genres included Literature, Suspense, Science Fiction and Fantasy.

This is NOT an exact science, people, so don’t take any of these findings as gospel truth. But I did find a few things that could be useful guidelines for us. Check out my lovely redneck graph showing (approximate) average words per scene for the beginning, middle and end of each book.:

Graph showing average words per scene for beginning, middle and end of seven novels.

Numbers are approximate.

The Takeaway

  • All the books had a mix of longer and shorter scenes
  • Longer scenes tended to appear toward the beginning, when the author was setting up character and setting
  • Scenes were almost uniformly shorter (the action sped up) in the middle and end
  • There were still occasional long scenes in the middles and ends of these books—usually scenes that introduced new characters or situations (more setup), or were action-packed climaxes
  • One curious thing: though the number of words per page was different for each book, all the books seemed to have lots of scenes that were 2-4 pages long. This makes me wonder if publishers choose book sizes based on average scene length, to create the illusion of a certain pace. But I’m probably over-thinking it.
  • We can be confident keeping most mid-to-end scenes between 300 and 1300 words. Earlier scenes can be longer.

Here are the detailed results and more than you ever wanted to know about how I got them:

What Counts as a Scene?

Scenes in novels are not always rigidly defined. I tried to measure scenes that were mostly action and/or dialogue, and avoided long chunks of exposition (which usually occur at the very beginning of novels, in the setup) and internal monologues (which are often used to transition from one scene into another). I didn’t feel these were proper “scenes,” as they occur inside the mind. Where action was tightly mixed with exposition (again, usually in opening scenes, especially the one in Runaway Jury), I counted it all. The hardest to measure were the middle scenes in Old Man and the Sea, which were an ambiguous mix of internal monologue and action.

Items that marked the beginning or end of a scene included:

  • Chapter breaks
  • The passage of time, indicated by:
    • Formatting (*** or extra blank lines between paragraphs)
    • Narration (“As the sun set,” “he awoke,” “two hours had passed,” etc.)
  • Changes of setting

How I Measured

It might be more accurate to count every word in every scene in every book, but who has that kind of time? Instead, I looked at various scenes at the beginning, middle and end of each book, and multiplied the page numbers by the number of words on an average page (an average manuscript page is about 250 words, but paper and font sizes vary with published books, so I had to do sample page counts for each book—for instance, my copy of Old Man and the Sea has about 180 words per page, whereas my Fellowship of the Ring has over 500 words per page).

The Detailed Results

If I could confidently define one scene in the first few pages, I only measured that one (those that say “First ‘proper’ scene”). If heavy exposition or other factors made the opening scene less definite, I measured several scenes and counted a range (those that say “Opening Scenes”). Where you see a range followed by a parenthetical number, that means most scenes fell within the range, but I saw one that was the length in parenthesis. The marks you see on the graph are approximately mid-range.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
(1859, Literature)
WORDS/PAGE: 300
FIRST “PROPER” SCENE: 7 pages | 2100 words
MIDDLE SCENES:  2-6 pages | 600-1800 words
CLOSING SCENES: 2-6 pages | 600-1800 words
 
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
(1952, Literature)
WORDS/PAGE: 184
FIRST “PROPER” SCENE: 5.5 pages | 990 words
MIDDLE SCENES: 2-4 pages | 360-720 words
CLOSING SCENES: 1-3 pages | 180-540 words
 
The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien
(1954, Fantasy)
WORDS/PAGE: 500
FIRST “PROPER” SCENE: 3 pages | 1500 words
MIDDLE SCENES: .5-4 pages | 250-2000 words
CLOSING SCENES: 1-3 pages | 500-1500 words
 
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
(1977, YA Sci Fi)
WORDS/PAGE: 300
OPENING SCENES: .5-2.2 (8+) pages | 150 – 660 words (2400)
MIDDLE SCENES: 2-4 (6) pages  | 600-1200 (1800) words
CLOSING SCENES: 2-4 pages | 600-1200 words
 
The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
(1996, Suspense)
WORDS/PAGE: 300
FIRST “PROPER” SCENE: 5.5 pages | 1650
MIDDLE SCENES: 2-3 pages | 600-900 words
CLOSING SCENES: 2 pages | 600 words
 
Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz
(1997, Suspense)
WORDS/PAGE: 380
OPENING SCENES: 2-4.5 (8) pages | 760-1710 (3040) words
MIDDLE SCENES: 2-5 pages (8.3) | 760-1900 (3154) words
CLOSING SCENES: 2-4 pages (10) | 760-1520 (3800) words
 
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
(2012, YA Literature)
WORDS/PAGE: 250
OPENING SCENE(S): 10.33-13.33 pages | 2582-3332 words
MIDDLE SCENES: 2-4 pages | 500-1000 words
CLOSING SCENES: 2-4 pages | 500-1000 words

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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19 Comments

  1. However unscientific this piece of research is, it will be a very useful guide to my untamed and novice writing episodes. Thank you for taking the trouble in doing this analysis. Best. Arun

  2. Great post! My rule of thumb: a scene should be as long as it needs to be to get the point across or move the story forward. So that means some scenes are fine at 1,000 words and others are good at just 300.

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  4. Thanks a lot this is very helpful. I can’t wrap my head around what a scene is, but this helps 🙂

  5. This one of the most meaningful websites I’ve stumbled on in quite some time! I appreciate the effort you put into dissecting storytelling and writing. You have encouraged me to attempt again to write a story that I have been longing to write for quite some time. Again, thank you very much!

    • I’m so glad you are getting back into writing! I love hearing that! Feel free to drop a question in the suggestion box if you run across any big problems on your journey back into the writing world. : )

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  8. Thanks for creating this! You’ve saved me a lot of work. Very useful :).

  9. Excellent post! Thanks so much for this…

  10. Thanks for doing all this hard work! This is an extremely helpful resource, that graph is beautiful. I especially like that it’s broken down by word count rather than pages since it’s so much easier to apply to your own work-in-progress. It really helped me out, thanks again.

  11. The latest scene I’ve written is around 2k long.
    I don’t want to cut anything because I feel it’s all useful and relevant and also, the whole thing is actually pretty good. I tried splitting it up, tried adding some parts of it to other scenes- which doesn’t work. Should I leave it? Is it far too long?

  12. Starting NaNoWriMo tomorrow and I’ve never written any fiction before. (Yikes on Halloween:) Been outlining for a couple of weeks and reading books. So having some idea about the range of scene length in words gives me one more little parameter to judge how I’m doing.

    And hooray for web sites that preserve this wisdom and search engines that let us find it. (This article popped up as number one in my first search on this subject.

    Now I’m going to check out more of this web site.

    Thanks

  13. Thanks pal.
    The scene length is dependent on the scene’s goal, conflict etc. However your attempt gave a good ball park so that beginners avoid ridiculously long scenes.

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