How Scene and Chapter Length Control Pacing

How Long Should a Scene Be? Depends on the Pacing

How Scene and Chapter Length Control Pacing

Did you know that writing shorter sentences during action scenes contributes to a sense of tension and speed? Turns out this  simple little trick that can also help you figure out how long a scene should be.

Controlling paragraph, sentence, and even word length is a common and easy way to affect the pacing of your story. If you want a scene to move quickly, think short. If you want it to move leisurely, lengthen the rhythm of your writing.

The same holds just as true for scene and chapter length.

How Differing Scene Lengths Create Different Books

Terra Incognita Ruth DownieFor example, Terra Incognita, the second book in Ruth Downie’s boisterous, tongue-in-cheek historical mystery series, features extremely short chapters, some barely longer than page.

In no small part due to this simple trick, her story rushes along at a madcap pace that perfectly suits her humorous tone and her hapless main character.

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIn contrast to the 50+ chapters in Downie’s books, the similarly sized books in Patrick O’Brian’s lauded Aubrey/Maturin series customarily feature no more than ten chapters. His decision to use chapters of fifty or more pages fits nicely within his series’ historical tone and lends gravitas and a feeling of importance to his characters’ seafaring adventures during the Napoleonic War.

How Long Should a Scene Be? Consider Your Book

Downie’s and O’Brian’s respective decisions on scene and chapter length effortlessly contribute to the fast-paced, modern tone of the one and the historic, slightly detached perspective of the other.

To figure out how long a scene should be in your book, consider the needs of your story. Fast and fun? Weighty and serious? Once you know the answer, you can apply this simple trick of pacing to control to your overall goal of tone and energy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How long should a scene be in your current story? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thank you. I absorb better visually 🙂 found you on Rolands blog roll. Best, Green Monkey

  2. Great advice. I hadn’t really considered chapter length for pacing. I just wrote them as long as they needed to be.

  3. Great post and so timely! Analyzing the pacing in my wip is exactly what I’m doing this week–it’s so neat that tips like yours come available just when needed. Thanks so much 🙂

  4. @Monkey: Glad you enjoy the vlog format!

    @Stina: When writing, I generally don’t consider chapter length. Only after the first draft is done will I go back and consciously divide the book in chapters.

    @Kenda: Glad it was something you could use this week!

  5. This is something I fully subscribe to as a writer! I love fast-paced books, and can barely tolerate chapters that are longer than 20 pages (I like to have an easy stopping point!) I purposefully write short chapters and scenes, usually under 12 or 15 pages, though some just a few paragraphs long, to make things rush along.

    Great post today!

  6. In general, I prefer shorter chapters too. I’m too OCD to stop anywhere but at a chapter break, so long chapters frustrate me. However, they do have a decided effect on the tone. The O’Brian books would have a different feel had they shorter chapters.

  7. If you ever have kids, you’ll have to get over that OCD compulsion… I had to stop reading Tatooine Ghost (I think) last night because my daughter and husband were ganging up on me… in the middle of a chapter. If I can’t stop at a chapter break, I like to stop at scene breaks, but sometimes that’s not an option with kids!

  8. A lot of my ingrained and rather beloved habits would have to change, I’m sure, if I had kids!

  9. Great information here – I think I do this almost subconsciously…my scenes almost never go over 1k words, and my chapters are normally 4-5 scenes long. I’m not really sure how that happens, it just sort of “feels right”…I’ll have to reassess during this rewrite I’m doing, and maybe play with pacing to see what shakes out. 🙂

  10. There’s a lot to be said for gut feelings. In my experience, they’re almost never wrong.

  11. Thank you! This is fantastic advice.

    I just noticed Audrey Niffenegger’s new book in your currently reading list! No one I know has read it, so I haven’t had the chance to talk with anyone about it. When you finish it, I would love to see a post with your thoughts. It’s so different from the Time Traveler’s Wife that I wouldn’t have guessed it was the same author.

  12. I finished Her Fearful Symmetry a few days ago and haven’t updated here yet. My thoughts in short: Beautifully crafted, leisurely, yet taut, with some fantastic characters. I was glued to this book as I have not been glued to a book in years… but the end left me feeling disoriented, emotionally vacant, and a little frustrated. In short, a good read with a disappointingly weak ending.

  13. Huh. Never thought of setting the pace through chapter lengths. Like Stina, I just notice as I write that “this part” is a good place to stop the chapter. But now that I think about it, I remember DaVinci Code had really short chapters. It must work!

  14. If you pay attention to fast-paced books, particularly thrillers and suspense novels, most of them feature short chapters which contribute to the general sense of speed within the story.

  15. Fantastic post! This is definitely going in our best articles This Week for Writers tomorrow!

  16. Thanks so much! I’m honored.

  17. I’d never considered chapter length as pacing either. I keep my chapters short because #1: my characters are telling me it’s the appropriate place to stop. #2: I hate to read books with long chapters and no section breaks. That forces me to remember where I am on the page. #3: I like reading books with short chapters. I’ve seen some books by Teri Blackstock that only contain a paragraph or so. It gives the feeling that I’m flying through the book, even though I’m reading at the same pace as normal.

    Good post, and good food for thought.

  18. Shorter chapters are very popular these days for the simple reason that they tend to be page-turners. And it’s a good reason too!

  19. I for one like medium sized chapters – but it all depends on the book too. 😉

  20. I tend to prefer a happy medium myself – and not just in books!

  21. Marissa John says:

    Great advice. I always look on chapter length like a lady’s skirt — short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the important stuff!

  22. I have been revising the writing in my nanowrimo novel. I have yet to divide it into chapters. This gives me information that I will consider the chapter lengths. There are places I want it to linger and places pacing should be faster. Thanks for timely post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The books I talk about the post definitely had different effects on my reading habits. The Ruth Downie books with the short chapters keep me racing through, sometimes without even realizing it when I hit the chapter breaks. The O’Brian books are a much more leisurely and luxurious experience.

  23. Kate Coleman says:

    I find it depends on where you are in the story. At the climax of my book I’ve found I need to keep everyone’s plot lines moving forward and converging so I have shorter, choppier scenes. At the start of the book the scenes were much longer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Pacing tends to get tighter the deeper into the story you are, and especially in the Third Act.

Trackbacks

  1. […] How Long Should a Scene Be? Depends on the Pacing […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.