It can be very difficult to determine how many scenes in a novel, and choose which scenes to include in your novel. And what is a scene in a novel, anyway? There’s simply so much to write into a story. There’s your plot, your character’s backstory, any world-building you need to do, and then there are the transitions–the moments that link everything together. I have some criteria here that will help you decide what to keep and what to chop.
How Many Scenes in a Novel and What Kind to Include
What is a scene in a novel? Well, it answers a crucial question that the reader might have. It achieves something. The best scenes to include in your novel are those that move the needle forward. Now, “the needle” can be one of many things. Here’s a short list:
- Something that informs character (main or secondary)
- Something that informs character relationship
- Something that informs plot
- Something that informs world-building
- Something that conveys mood
- Something that conveys theme/bigger picture meaning
- Something that informs (information-wise, that is!)
Often, in my editorial work with clients, I find myself asking the question: “Does this earn its keep?” That can refer to a scene or sometimes an entire chapter (check out this article for more tips to start a story with a scene). More simply, “Does something happen?”
That something doesn’t have to be in the realm of zombies flooding down out of nowhere–in other words, a climactic event. But every scene and chapter needs to have a “something” from the list above. It needs to matter to your story and exist other than just because you felt like writing it.
What Is a Scene in a Novel: The Level of Action or Information In Your Scene
The other important consideration here, other than what the scene does, is what your scene is: Is it action or is it information? I have long contended that all writing is a balance of action and information. The more information you have, the less action you’re going to insert, and vice versa.
In order to keep readers awake during those necessary scenes where you deliver information, you need to have action/plot/external conflict, and a lot of it. When choosing what scene to include in your novel, I would favor those scenes that contain action. If it’s a scene heavy with talking, information, exposition, backstory, flashback, etc., that might be worth a review right there (tips on writing flashbacks here).
Order is important in chapter structure, too. If you have too my information in chapter after chapter, you are spending all of your “information capital” and going into deep debt (or, likely, boredom). Refill your coffers by including action. That buys you more leeway to do some info-dumping after you work on plot. It also helps you decide how many scenes in a novel and their length.
Look very closely at all of the dense sections of telling/information/backstory in your novel. I have reason to believe you could cut or reorganize these, and make sure to space them apart between plenty of action.
What Is a Scene in a Novel? A Tale of Three Scenes
Please consider these examples and try to guess if I’d suggest you keep them in your novel:
A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to hash out their quarrel about an ex-boyfriend they both share?
That informs character, informs relationship, conveys mood, and sets up some plot (I’d imagine). Best of all, there is tension. They are talking about an emotionally charged subject. It’s obviously a keeper, even though the scene is rather static and passive (they are sitting and talking rather than doing stuff or having stuff done to them). Depending on how well the conversation goes, there could be the potential for fisticuffs, too, so this could translate into a more active scene.
A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream to talk about the upcoming Harvest Festival in town?
Well, this one takes all the story tension off the table. (Unless it’s a Harvest Festival where the serial killer strikes every year. In which case, carry on…) So the answer becomes less clear-cut. If you are able to make any progress on world-building (setting the scene for this particular place and event) or tension or character relationship, include this scene, but keep it short. But if they’re just chatting excitedly about the festival, we already know about the town and its customs, and there’s nothing else going on, it might be nice, but “nice” ain’t good enough.
A scene where two characters sit down over ice cream and talk about the Harvest Festival they went to yesterday where nobody got serial killed?
Absolutely not. Here, this scene is a bad idea all around. They are sitting around and talking (passive), nothing else is happening, the chitchat is rather pleasant (unless something truly twisted happened at the Harvest Festival), and they are rehashing material that the reader has already read. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Cut it.
How to Handle Transitions in Your Novel
Which brings me to my last salient point: spend less time on transitions. If nothing is happening, you don’t need to labor over it. Get your reader from point A to point B without too much fuss.
Just because we eat breakfast every day and use the restroom every day (one would hope), there’s no need to put it on the page. I’ve worked with some manuscripts recently where writers felt duty-bound to describe every element of a character’s day because, well, that character needed to get out of bed somehow before they could go to the Harvest Festival.
This is a common but misguided urge. Instead of going through an entire school schedule to get to the event that happens at the end of the day, simply stick in a short and sweet transition: “After an ordinary day at school…”
The bottom line? Get the reader to the good stuff quickly. Cut whatever doesn’t move the needle. Trust the reader to fill in the bathroom breaks.
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