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How Many Scenes In A Novel: The Math of Story Telling

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So you have the top quarter of your Foolscap Global Story Grid filled in. How do you begin to actually map out the rest of your Story? How long will it take you to write the first draft? How many scenes should be in a novel? Is there a way to take the “beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff” concepts even further to break down the work into more “doable” parts?

This is where a little rudimentary math will help.

How Many Scenes in a Novel?

Your novel should have 50-60 scenes. 25% of them are for the Beginning Hook, 50% are for the Middle Build, and 25% are for the Ending Payoff.

Now, let’s dig into why this works.

The Problem is the Problem

But before we dive into it, remember that you are not the problem.  The problem is the problem. And the problem we’re facing now is figuring out how to map out a course to get from idea to first draft or of how to evaluate the first draft we have in hand. At the beginning of the long form Story process, the problems we face are innumerable.  To demystify exactly how a lump sum of words can be broken down into component parts is extraordinarily helpful. If we can cut our problems into bite size pieces that we can contend with one by one, one day, one session at a time, then we can beat Resistance into submission and finish our first draft or edit our first draft.

How many scenes in a novel is a math question.

I know. You hate math.  That is why you became a writer/storyteller.  But, math is a Godsend.  And a very cursory look at the math of a novel is definitely worth the time.

Why Does Math Help Your Story?

Math helps you break problems into little bits.  It’s much easier to figure out where to cut a piece of lumber than it is framing a house.  Your mind can’t really wrap itself around framing a house.  But if you break the work down into its component parts, you’ll reach a very doable level of skill…a skill that is relatively easy to master.  Measuring the length of a board, marking where to cut it, and then taking a saw and ripping it at that mark is the primal skill for a carpenter.  If you can do that one skill well (and you can screw it up very easily too) you are well on your way to learning how to frame a house.

Same goes with writing or editing a long form Story.

So let’s look a novel in mathematical terms.

Here are some facts.

The average length of a commercial novel today is between 80,000 and 100,000 words.  Are there exceptions?  Sure, but this ballpark range is where the novel has settled over the last twenty years or so.  It’s the length the average reader is expecting—not too much and not too little. So, it’s a safe assumption to make that if you want to begin a path that will satisfy a particular readership, your goal is to put together 80,000 to 100,000 words in a unique and compelling way.

Let’s break it down further using the Foolscap method.

3 Parts of a Story

To keep it simple, you’ll need a beginning, middle, and an end to your story. No matter how many Acts you have (3 to 5 to 7), you need a beginning to your story, a middle section to your story and an ending to your story.  As an editor, I don’t worry so much about figuring out exactly how many ACTS are in a book.  For me, the Beginning, Middle and End are all that matter.  The beginning may comprise 2 Acts, the middle 3 acts and the end 2 acts, but I don’t really care.  Instead I concentrate on the five building materials for each of the three sections.  I think about the Inciting Incident scenes, Progressive Complications scenes, the Crisis scenes, the Climax scenes and the Resolution scenes for the beginning, middle and end of a book. (Don’t worry; I’ll go over these crucial elements of story form in much greater detail in upcoming posts.)

The key building block for a long form narrative is the Scene. Story Beats are the actor’s domain.  Scenes are the writer’s. (I’ll review the building blocks of Story in future posts too.)

The First 15 Scenes

So the first breakdown of the 80,000 to 100,000 word book are the scenes necessary to create the five building materials for your beginning, middle and end of your Global Story. How many scenes are in a novel? So there will be at least 15 scenes in your book:

  1. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the beginning of your story.
  2. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the middle of your story.
  3. You’ll need a scene that is the inciting incident of the end of your story.
  4. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the beginning of your story.
  5. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the middle of your story.
  6. You’ll need a scene that progressively complicates the end of your story.
  7. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the beginning of your story.
  8. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question in the middle of your story.
  9. You’ll need a scene that creates a crisis question at the end of your story.
  10. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the beginning of your story.
  11. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the middle of your story.
  12. You’ll need a scene that climaxes the end of your story.
  13. You’ll need a scene that resolves the beginning of your story.
  14. You’ll need a scene that resolves the middle of your story.
  15. You’ll need a scene that resolves the end of your story.

But how long should they be? How many words should each scene be? And then how many words should be in the beginning? How many words should be in the middle?  How many words should be in the end?

Here is a piece of information that professional writers spend 10,000 hours of their lives figuring out.  After thousands of years of storytelling, the beginning, the middle and the end for a long form Archplot or Miniplot story breaks down as follows:

The Beginning is about one quarter of the Story.

The Middle is about one half of the Story.

The End is the last quarter of the Story.

Are there stories that do not break down 25/50/25?  Absolutely.  But if you were to average every story ever told, 25/50/25 would be the result. I have a theory about why Stories break down like this. My next post will throw it out there. It’s all about CHANGE.

So, if you are writing a 100,000-word novel, the beginning will generally be 25,000 words, the middle will generally be 50,000 words and the end will be the last 25,000 words.  We’ve already determined that we need at least 15 scenes in the book, 5 in the beginning, 5 in the middle, and 5 in the end.

What about the rest?

How Long is a Scene?

Nerds like me have noticed that typically, in contemporary commercial fiction, scenes run between 1000 and 5000 words. Remember that a scene creates a clear value change in the life of a character through conflict. When I break down The Story Grid Spreadsheet (the micro view of a Story) for The Silence of the Lambs, you’ll see where Thomas Harris fell on the scene word count spectrum. My personal recommendation is to take a page from the master and keep your scenes, like Harris’s, around 2000 words. I also recommend that you treat your scenes like chapters.  That is, each scene should be a chapter in your novel.

Why?

Two thousand word scene/chapters is potato chip length.

That is, if you are about to go to bed and your reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around 2000 word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter.  But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the Story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato chip scenes all through the night.

Whereas, if you cram five scenes into a chapter that ends up being forty pages, the bedside reader will have a much easier time of just setting the book down before beginning the long slog through seven five hundred words.

People like to stop reading when they’ve finished a chapter, not in the middle of a chapter. This is probably the last thing they’ll tell you at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, but it’s a reality worth considering.

You can accomplish quite a bit in 2000 words and if you successfully leave out the stuff that the reader does not need explained to them, 2000 words can often be way too much.

Anyway, let’s assume that all of the scenes/chapters in our novel are 2000 words long.  So if we’re writing a 100,000-word novel, we’ll have about 50 scene/chapters in our novel. From our earlier beginning, middle and end discussion, we know that 15 of those 50 scenes are already spoken for.  So we’ll need to write 35 more.

I know.  You are an artist and this mathematical manipulation is probably rubbing you the wrong way.  I get it.  But remember, the math is just a way to break down an extremely intimidating task into doable units.

How Many Scenes in a Novel

So we have 35 scenes left.  Let’s set aside 25% of these for the BEGINNING, 50% of them for THE MIDDLE and the other 25% for THE END.

So we’ll need 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our beginning (12-13 total).

We’ll have 20 additional scenes to play with in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes in the middle (25 total).

And we’ll have 7-8 scenes in addition to our 5 obligatory scenes for our end (12-13 total).

You can now see the entire form of your novel without having written a single word. You’ve got doable pieces of work that can be attacked one day, one session at a time.

So, how many scenes should a novel have?

But let me emphasize again that you may end up with 6 scenes for the beginning, 30 for the middle and 14 for the end or the other way around.  There is no “rule” about 12/25/13. There is now rule to how many scenes should be in a novel. We are merely trying to map out a course of work for us to bang out a first draft.  After we have a first draft, then we can go back and analyze exactly which scenes work and which scenes don’t work. But if we never write a first draft because we get stuck after writing three scenes, we’re never going to finish the novel. Better to have a map of the targets we need to hit in order to make it to the end.

Once we get to the end, then we can go back and fix our blunders.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.