Sunday, December 18, 2011

Scene Length

Someone emailed a question seeking guidance for how to determine the best length for scenes. She said her CPs were complaining that her scenes were too long, and she wasn't sure why they were making that comment.

Scene length is tricky because each scene is different. There's no set template for scenes or even for types of scenes. But if people are saying, "Your scenes are too long," that might mean they're literally physically too long, or it might mean there's a pacing issue within a scene that is a more or less appropriate length. These are related problems, of course, because if a scene goes on for 5k words and all they do is check their calendars to see when they're both free for coffee, chances are the length problem stems from a pacing problem.

How do you know when it's a pacing problem? Pacing problems occur when the story elements are not given an appropriate amount or type of attention in the text. To diagnose a pacing problem, start by identifying the important story elements in a scene. The more important an element is, the more space it should occupy on the page. (This assumes you're not trying to hide an important detail in plain sight, as sometimes happens with mystery clues. In that case, minimize the amount of page space granted to that detail.) Less weighty details should occupy less page space.

However, there's more to it than just the amount of page space. We also have to look at the type of narrative element being used to reveal the story element. So, let's say the story element is a bit of action -- someone does something in the physical world of the scene. Action is usually faster paced just by its nature, but it's possible to slow it down by revealing the character's physical movement through dialogue or exposition instead of through action.

Right then, Aaron pulled the trigger. (action)

"I am pulling the trigger right this second," Aaron said. (dialogue)
Aaron realized this was the appropriate time to use a pulling motion against the trigger. (exposition)

So, we've said that important story moments require more space on the page in order to carry their own narrative weight, but in this case, the longer the sample sentence gets, the slower the pace gets. What makes it slow down? Instead of directly conveying movement through action, it's being translated into another element, and the reader will have to mentally translate it back from dialogue or exposition to actual physical movement. This creates a drag on the pacing.

So, pacing is a complex issue that requires careful appraisal, and the general principles of pacing and length sometimes work against each other. That said, we can still formulate some very broad ideas about how long a scene should be.

Broad Idea #1:
If a scene is built around action and dialogue, it can be a bit on the long side.

Broad Idea #2:
If a scene is built around description, interior monologue, or exposition, it can be a bit on the short side.

These first two broad ideas work from the equally broad ideas that action and dialogue are faster (so you can have more of them before they feel slow), but description, interior monologue, and exposition are slower (so you should scale back on them to prevent a pacing drag).

Broad Idea #3:
The more the reader's emotions will be engaged, the longer the scene can be.

The reader's emotion can result from sharing the characters' emotions (as in a fight scene or a love scene), or it can occur from scene tension (as in a scene where the reader is on edge about what will happen next).

Broad Idea #4:
Modulate both the pace and the length of scenes.

Unless you're writing something meant for serialization and have strict format requirements, use a mix of lengths and paces to avoid a repetitive tone in the text.



Julie Harrington said...

Whenever I get that kind of feedback (always on my action scenes, dang it!) I make myself step back and ask what I'm trying to achieve in the scene, what conflict I'm trying to work with and what I'm trying to do *to* the conflict, and look for repetition between dialogue and narrative. If I'm repeating ideas between them, I lop out the narrative and keep the dialogue version in.

It's funny because when you get critique advice like this back, it's hard to nail down what they mean because sometimes even *they* don't know what it is. "It's just... long." "It feels off somehow..." And then the detective work begins!


Wes said...

Seems like varying the length of scenes might help too. I quick punch of powerful action might make longer scenes easier to swallow.

Adrian said...

One thing I do to try to keep a scene from dragging out is to relocate the characters partway through the scene.

For example, I had two characters in a conference room arguing for way too long. But I couldn't shorten the argument--it had to get to a certain revelation--and my attempts to accelerate the revelation felt unnatural. So partway through the argument, I had one storm out. The other pursued, and the argument continued into the hallway, among the cubicles, down the elevator, through the lobby, and the revelation hits just as the emerge from the office into the parking lot. The scene actually feels shorter and faster even though it's longer.

For example, if the characters are arguing in a conference room forever, you can have them move out of the room partway through the

Edittorrent said...

Julie, it is often difficult to diagnose the best cure for a pacing problem, but the general approach usually follows the kind of thing you discuss. Isolate the conflict, identify the change, eliminate repetitions, remove explanations, exaggerate character responses -- that sort of thing. And so much of it is story-specific that it's difficult to get any more precise than that! But it sounds as though you have a decent approach in place, and that should help.


Edittorrent said...

Adrian, that's a really good trick. I know I tend to blather about the importance of leveraging setting, but you've just provided us with a great example of a practical way to do that.


green_knight said...

Adrian, making two characters in a relatively featureless room interestig is hard - I speak from expeience... yours is a good solution.

I also find that the ideal length of a scene corresponds in part to its importance - if the character goes clothes shopping, however important the things you're hiding in that scene, it should have less weight than the breakup-with-boyfriend and save-cat-from-burning-building scenes.

I prefer scenes to have around 4-6 beats - single beats can be useful (character meets someone who makes them smile for the first time in weeks; in the bowels of the spaceship, a wire breaks) but mostly you want to have more than one thing happening - but not too many things at once, otherwise the reader will stop and go back... wait, this offstage charcter cheated and that character tells the other one *and* we learnt the location of the McGuffin *and* a new alliance is formed *and* someone breaks into the room and kills one of the characters *and* the house catches fire... err, who was the adulterer again?

Breaking this into several scenes, each developing and having a climax of their own will read better tha one giant kitchen sink of a scene.

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, yes, agreed, but then we get into issues of how to arrange the pieces for maximum impact. It's not a good idea to always break at the natural end of a scene, and when you start building scenes around beats, you can easily fall into that pattern -- which quickly becomes repetitive. So I agree, but with that caveat.


green_knight said...

I think the beats are more of a diagnostic than a writing tool, and in any case, I'm trying to develop more fluency in my writing. But when you read a scene and it doesn't work, I often find that there's a discrepancy between the length and the amount of important stuff that happens - eight distinctive beats in an 800-word-scene are as problematic as two beats in 2K.

Edittorrent said...

Hmm, dunno. Two beats in a 2k scene might be exactly right if they're major beats. But I'm not disagreeing with your basic idea. It's just that so much depends on the relative weight of the story moments in the scene.


Edittorrent said...

JT, those are good questions for any scenes!

Adrian, that's a thought too. I wonder if often we just kind of wimp out with a scene setting and choose something easy. Moving the setting could focus it more?