Scene length and pacing

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Scene length and pacing

Postby Sanderling » 08 Aug 2011, 10:35

I read somewhere once that in television scenes aren't supposed to exceed a certain number of minutes in length (I've forgotten the number now, but think it was three). Beyond this and you risk losing the viewer's attention. If you have a conversation or sequence that needs to take more than three minutes, you switch the scene - break it up into two (start it in the office, cut to the cafeteria where they continue talking) or have the characters move while talking (start in the office then walk down to the cafeteria).

I suspect the same is true of novels: keeping scenes shorter and dispersing information across multiple scenes instead of one lengthy one will help to keep the story moving forward. There are numbers floating around out there for ideal average book length and chapter length. Of course there are exceptions to and variation within every rule, but is there an ideal average scene length for strong, fast (but not breakneck!) pacing? How long do everyone's scenes tend to run?
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby polymath » 08 Aug 2011, 11:08

Well, three minutes average reading rate and not too coincidentally speaking rate at 150 words per minute is 450 words or roughly two pages in Standard Manuscript Format. 100,000 words average novel length, roughly 350 SMF pages, or 200 scenes potentially in that minor chord sense of the term. 200 divided by thirteen for the ideal number of scenes in the major chord sense of parts that make up the five ideal act divisions: exposition, three rising action scenes, climax, three falling action scenes, and denouement; and the four crises scenes that bridge the acts, roughly 15 minor chord scenes per major chord scene.

Hmm, doesn't quite fit, probably because audiovisual media condenses narrative time compared to story time by audiovisually depicting in a few moments what written depiction takes longer to do. No wonder novel to film translations frequently cut out large parts of a novel's major and minor chord scenes.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby MattLarkin » 08 Aug 2011, 14:43

While I tend to prefer shorter scenes and chapters and fast pacing, 450 words seems really short for average scene length.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby polymath » 08 Aug 2011, 14:54

MattLarkin wrote:While I tend to prefer shorter scenes and chapters and fast pacing, 450 words seems really short for average scene length.

Yes, short, indeed. The basic premise, though, is a clip length of a single camera shot's focus should not exceed three minutes. Even that length is long, but has purposes for emphasizing the emotional poignancy of a focal scene's character, event, idea, plot, and setting emphasis, as it were, time, place, and situation, especially situation. Applied to writing, it means dramatic movement won't sustain being static for very long.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby MattLarkin » 08 Aug 2011, 17:04

polymath wrote:
MattLarkin wrote:While I tend to prefer shorter scenes and chapters and fast pacing, 450 words seems really short for average scene length.

Yes, short, indeed. The basic premise, though, is a clip length of a single camera shot's focus should not exceed three minutes. Even that length is long, but has purposes for emphasizing the emotional poignancy of a focal scene's character, event, idea, plot, and setting emphasis, as it were, time, place, and situation, especially situation. Applied to writing, it means dramatic movement won't sustain being static for very long.

No static, for certain, but a powerful scene can stretch for many pages without losing its force, even if the location and characters have not changed.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby bcomet » 08 Aug 2011, 18:04

There are certain scenes that are delicious and meant to be drawn out, savored, slowing time down in them, and others that are suspenseful, fast, quick.

I think in terms of what needs to be a complete scene that moves it into the next scene, using as many or as few words as it takes to tell it well.

For a thing to grow, I often think it needs at least three related but different scenes where the tension builds. One does not just meet the love of their life in one scene and voila: love. I mean, where is the story of it then. And wondering, with your imagination lit up, what the monster will look like when they finally reveal themselves is tantalizing.

I think writing can be a lot like cooking. Some things need to be built and blended and take more time. Others are crisp and quick. Cold and hot.

I love the variety and elegance of story.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby Ishta » 08 Aug 2011, 23:21

I think bcomet hit on it with the statement that a scene should simply be told well, with as many or as few words as necessary.

Interestingly, I've read that it's a good idea to vary scene length, because too much consistency in that sense can lead to monotony. I've noticed this when I read, too - too many scenes of the same length and I actually get bored. Varying the scene length adds layers and keeps things fresh and interesting, in the same way that adding a blend of herbs to a dish adds complexity and makes it more pleasing to the palate than the use of only one herb. I think it's important to bear that in mind.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby Nicole R » 09 Aug 2011, 07:30

I'm with bcomet and Ishta - some scenes require only a handful of words, others need more to really make them sing. I go with whatever feels right as long as I think readers can take without exploding in irritation that it's too long or too short. :D

Scene lengths also dictate the rhythm of your overall plot, so I agree with Ishta's thought that variety is best. That way, you invite readers to feel the high, anxious moments and the moments of recovery, where your characters catch a breath.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby polymath » 09 Aug 2011, 08:58

Audiovisual media doesn't depict thoughts, or introspection writing mode, as well as text. Cinematic devices like voiceover soliloquys and dramatic mononlogues and camera objective perspective techniques imitate thought. The former, the television situtation comedy Scrubs carried voiceover to its logical extreme. Silence of the Lambs' camera techniques depicted the first person perspective of Buffalo Bill, with thoughts expressed by voiceover.

Text, on the other hand, has free rein with thoughts through depicting free or tagged, direct or indirect thoughts. If visual media cannot imitate the introspective perspective of characters the way text does, it's often left out. Another scene from Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling at the rural morgue preparing to examine a Buffalo Bill victim skips altogether Clarice's introspection that artfully makes the scene's meaning. Jack Crawford puts the onus on Clarice to clear the looky-lou sheriff's deputies and troopers out of the morgue. On point, being tested by her superior, she appreciates the sensitive situation and how to solve the problem by working it out in her mind, a thought exercise. The film depicts the scene with a few camera angles and dialogue lines in a matter of moments. The novel scene takes up several pages. The film doesn't do the novel's scene justice.

Film doesn't foreshorten story time very well. It cannot without cinematic devices that are shy of the bar text sets. Slow motion is a time foreshortening device that when done well almost substitutes. I think slow motion is overdone and often done artlessly. Text foreshortens story time by drawing out narrative time. The fleeting emotional thought reactions between an inciting cause and a subsequent effect-reaction can be artfully depicted in text. What takes a microsecond in real time can occupy several pages and minutes in narrative time, thus foreshortening story time and imitating the standstill of time humans experience at emotionally tense moments that allow for conscious or nonconscious thought. Nonconscious thought, now there's the art and motherloving hard to imitate.

Another cinematic device and screen or stageplay technique foreshortens story time by foreshortening camera objective perspective. Foreshortening is basically using a long camera objective with a narrow depth and field of view. A focal foreground subject is in focus and the background is blurred. Using a long telephoto lens and shooting from a distance closes in close, zooms, on the subject narrative distance-wise.

The stageplay technique is known as a Pinter Pause. Playwright Harold Pinter consciously mastered the technique that Shakespeare almost grasped. I expect audiences of Shakespeare's time weren't ready for that close of a narrative distance, or psychic distance in an audiovisual vernacular. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in the cemetery is a traditional classic example of Shakespeare's story time foreshortening, closing narrative or psychic distance technique that wowed audiences, but didn't close in so close audiences of the time were upset by voyeuristically disturbing psychic access to thoughts. I imagine as limited a censorship as Shakespeare enjoyed in the heady Elizabethan era's lusty exuberances, that would have been one bridge too far for church and moral authorities to have allowed. Communing with the devil mind reading and all that.

Pinter Pauses are emotionally poignant moments when a character on stage stands mostly still and speaks few or no direct speech words. No dialogue. Emotional expressions and gestures and body language take the place of expressing thoughts aloud by soliloquy or dramatic monologue. The film equivalent zooms in on a subject's external emotional expressions and foreshortens time by closing so close sweat droplets become waterfalls, hair folicles become forests, facial lines become chasms, and so on.
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby Susan Quinn » 21 Aug 2011, 19:09

There are certain scenes that are delicious and meant to be drawn out, savored, slowing time down in them, and others that are suspenseful, fast, quick.


This! There is a certain rhythm to every scene, I think, and you have to pay attention more to that - the rising and falling of action, of tension, ending it at just the right spot. That is more important than any exact length. Which, I realize, is not tremendously helpful, because it is more an intuitive thing (and reading LOTS is where we build our intuition, so you can check books that you love for guidance). I'm reading a friend's MS right now, where some chapters are too long and others are too short - not because of their actual lengths, but because of the meanderingness of them (hey, I just made up a word! Must be getting late.). :)
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby lightelement94 » 23 Aug 2011, 08:37

Susan Quinn wrote:This! There is a certain rhythm to every scene, I think, and you have to pay attention more to that - the rising and falling of action, of tension, ending it at just the right spot. That is more important than any exact length. Which, I realize, is not tremendously helpful, because it is more an intuitive thing (and reading LOTS is where we build our intuition, so you can check books that you love for guidance).


Scene length cannot and should not be prescribed--Susan, you're absolutely spot on with the important of intuition here. Some scenes are entire chapters long but may be composed of smaller self-contained details or progressive issues which can and should be explored in sequence in full. I think, in this sense, scene length and scene continuity are just as important. I sometimes run into trouble when I bridge large scenes with many little scenes, and the reader becomes bogged down in unnecessary transitions which I develop like some kind of authorial fiend. If you're going to tend towards large scenes (say, a significant scene or incident per chapter), it could be a stylistic choice to cut down on these transitional, and otherwise short (probably not so useful) scenes. Writers like Dashiel Hammett use this to great effect, because it contributes to suspense and the psychology of your main character. (Polymath touched on that when he talked about "foreshortening" narrative.)
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby AnimaDictio » 23 Aug 2011, 10:38

polymath, what does "three rising action scenes" and "three falling action scenes" mean?
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Re: Scene length and pacing

Postby polymath » 23 Aug 2011, 12:02

Three episodes, if you will, of discovery and reversal related to a main dramatic complication. A rising action act is a process of three attempts to address the complication. A falling action act is a process of three attempts to avoid an inevitable end of the complication posed by the circumstances of a tragic crisis, where all seems lost.

Rising action episodes increase doubt of a favorable outcome, while discovering the ramifications of the complication, increasing or risiing efforts to address the complication, and increasing opposition of forces. Falling action is the opposite, outcome seems less and less in doubt, final ramifcations of the complication discovered, decreasing efforts, and decreasing opposition of forces.
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