Can you tell if your scenes are too long or too short? Do you know what to look for when trying to determine this? I’ll give you some pointers, but first, I want to talk about why you don’t want to have a scene that’s too long or too short.
If your scene is too long, you risk losing your reader. She might skim or close the book without feeling a need to come back. Not good.
If your scene is too short, the reader won’t be able to get into the story. She’ll feel detached from the characters because you, the author, didn’t go deep enough into the POV character’s point of view. Readers need to feel what the characters are going through, and in order to do this right, you need enough time and space to go deep.
Another problem with a short scene is that it probably lacks its GMCs (goals, motivations, and conflicts). While you need your main character to have STORY GMCs, each scene needs its own GMCs. To be clear, the scene itself doesn’t have a goal, but the POV character in that scene will have a goal, a reason for that goal (motivation), and a conflict that will keep him from attaining that goal. Sometimes, the POV character will attain a scene goal, which will get him closer to his story goal, but then something else comes up to keep him from that final goal until the end of the book. GMCs are what move the story forward. Without scene goals, you’ve probably written episodic scenes. These are scenes that might seem interesting, but they don’t move the story forward and don’t show character growth.
But how can you tell if your scene is too long or too short?
A long scene will kill the pace. There might be too many details and possibly too much narration or too much dialogue. One way to determine if you have a nice balance here is to use highlighters. Pick a color for dialogue, one for narration/internalization, one for action, and one for setting details. If some of the colors seem to dominate the scene, you should take a look at those areas to see where you can trim. Setting details should be layered into the scene without taking over. Dialogue needs to be to the point. No rambling. Don’t show the greetings and closing points in dialogue. Let the characters say what needs to be said to move the story forward or to show character growth (or lack of growth—depending where you are in the book), and then move on. What about the action? Is your fight scene dragging on? Too much action or suspense can drain a reader, so make sure you only have what you need in that scene.
When checking if your scene is too short, the first thing you need to determine is whether or not you have a scene goal and conflict. Motivation should be clear or hinted at, but if we know the character, we might already know his motivation, so you don’t necessarily need to repeat it every time that comes up. Once you have the goal and conflict, check to see if you’ve grounded the reader. Do we know who is in the scene and where it’s taking place? Do we know how much time has passed since the last scene this character was in? Have we been to this place before? Do we need a quick view of the surroundings? If so, layer this in. You can show us details about the antique table when the character places her purse on it. You can show us how small the room is if the character feels claustrophobic. The character can compare this messy apartment to her impeccably clean home. Details layered like this also show us more about our POV character, but be sure to remember whose point of view we’re in. A construction worker probably won’t notice an antique table, but a designer or someone who’s grandmother had a table just like it would.
Emotions are often absent in a short scene. We need to feel the POV character’s emotions and experience everything through his eyes. Show (don’t tell) us how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking. Don’t name the emotion either. SHOW it. For example, don’t say, “Anger rushed through his veins.” Show us how he feels when he’s angry. How does this character’s body react to anger? Does his stomach clench? Do the muscles in his back tense? Does his face burn? Show us how he’s feeling so the reader can experience his journey through him.
If you struggle to determine whether your scenes are too short or too long, have another writer take a look at your work. Critique partners and beta readers are great tools and should be used before you query agents or hire a freelance editor.
Do you tend to write short or long scenes? How do you know when you’ve found the right balance between both?