Stacey Carroll has a great post about word counts and where they fit in short stories, novellas, novels, and even the different genres. Go read it. I won’t repeat it here.
What I want to talk about is answers to the questions “how many words make a scene?” This question about word counts really should be a question about structure.
Story Structure: The Scene
A writer crafts a series of scenes to tell a story. What is a scene? In simplest terms, a scene is a set of actions and thoughts that move the character(s) through a point of conflict prepared (or woefully unprepared) to face the next one.
In order to have conflict, your characters have to have a goal they want. Then people or situations appear, getting in the way of achieving that goal. These people or situations are obstacles. They can be external – a person who wants to get something instead of letting your character have it. Or internal – a trait whereby the character gets in her own way because she refuses to change or is not self-aware to realize she needs to change.
Story goals are something that most story planners have writers consider. But how often have you considered that these story goals have scene goals, smaller steps that are necessary before the character is in the best place to actually achieve what they want?
So the first thing you have to do in determining what is your scene is asking what does the character need/want to achieve in the moment that they think will get them a step closer to their story goal? The options are governed by setting, readiness, and opportunity. Some steps can’t be taken forward unless the character is in the right place. Other steps can’t be taken because the character is not ready mentally or physically. And still other steps can’t be taken unless there’s an opportunity both available and recognized.
This is why a character who wants to win another’s heart plans all those opportunities to be in the same place at the same time. This is why a character who is surprised to see their object of affection in a place when they’re not ready – so they scramble awkwardly to become ready. This is why a character might turn and run and try again another day. Each of these options would be the core of a scene showing the character attempting to move closer and closer to their goal of being able to connect with their love interest and finally win their heart.
So now, back to the writing. To write a scene you have to show
- where the character is
- what they hope to achieve, and then
- how the character tries to resolve each obstacle
The scene you are writing ends when:
- the setting changes
- the goal is accomplished, or partially or utterly failed
- a lot of time will pass before the character can try again
This means, in the end, the answer to the questions is “how long is a scene?” is: “as long as it needs to be to accomplish these things.”