Scene Construction

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I received this [very] brief email from Bobby, a viewer of my YouTube channel: “can you make a future video on how you write scenes and the length they sometimes are?”

I responded to him that of course, I’d be delighted to do a video on the topic, but then I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what constitutes a “scene” when it comes to a novel.  In a screenplay, scenes are self-described by slug lines:


But novels aren’t formatted that way.  We use paragraphs and space breaks to denote POV switches, but that’s because we can deploy the thoughts and perspectives of characters occupying the same space, a powerful tool that does not exist in a screenwriter’s ditty bag.

According to The Writing Cooperative, “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you’ll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.”

I’m not sure I agree with this.  If George and Martha are having a fight, and we cut away to Midge’s POV as she listens to the argument and passes judgment on them, that seems to me to be the same scene, but from different POVs.

This is what happens when you’re a home-schooled writer.  I don’t have the vocabulary to explain much of what I do, and the more I search for it, but more irrelevant the vocabulary seems to the actual process of writing.  Thus my philosophy, “Think less, write more.”

But I still owe Bobby an answer, and for the sake of this post, I’ll rename what The Writing Cooperative defines as a scene to be a space break.  And I mean that literally–an extra space on the page to indicate a switch to a new POV, or even to a parallel story line.

Gilstrap’s Rules For Space Breaks/Scenes

  1. There are no rules.  Use whatever works for you. That which works for me in my writing may very well suck in your writing.
  2. Know why your characters are doing what they’re doing in this scene and how this interaction contributes to the larger story.
    1. If the scene does not develop a character or propel the plot (preferably both, and at the same time), it does not belong in the story.
  3. Know whose point of view is the most dramatic for the presentation of this action.
    1. If Character M’s POV is the key to action that occurs in the second or third act, Character M needs at least one POV scene earlier in the story.  The reader will feel cheated if an otherwise secondary character steps into the spotlight for that One Important Reveal.
  4. Each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
    1. In the scene I’m writing in my current WIP, Hellfire (July, 2020), we’re introduced to Grant, who will become a significant character in the story.  He’s in jail as we meet him, and he anticipates good news very soon (the beginning).  When the news arrives, it is entirely different than what he expected (the middle).  And then it hits him just how really bad the news is (end).  I haven’t finished the scene yet, but I expect that it will all play out in 7 pages or so.
  5. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
    1. Two people who like each other and are in agreement do not advance a story.  Our own James Scott Bell refers to this as Happy People in Happy Land and it is first on his list of “The Five Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)” [We can discuss the choice of an ampersand in the title later.]  Taking him completely out of context, he also believes that the best novels “have the threat of death hanging over every scene.”  The linked article is really worth reading.  You know, when you’re done reading this.
  6. Strive for consistent space break/chapter break lengths.
    1. This is an imprecise science at best.  I shoot for chapter lengths of 12-15 manuscript pages, with two space breaks per chapter (maybe three).  I do this because I write long to begin with, and I think 40 chapters is about right.  One chapter per space break interrupts the “fictive dream” too frequently for my tastes.  (And 180 chapters is silly.)

So, that’s my cut at Bobby’s question.  It’s your turn, TKZers.  I haven’t done the video yet, so what am I missing?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

19 thoughts on “Scene Construction

  1. I agree. What matters isn’t what we call something but that we can see (hear, smell, taste, feel) through the POV character’s senses and opinions and transfer that to the page.

    Interesting point that screenwriters don’t have available to them all the tools novelists have. Interesting, too, that we have available techniques directors often use. I think it was Bradbury who said a new scene occurs each time there’s a new camera angle.

    I see every new setting that way (camera angle, in my head) as a scene.

    A minor scene might be transitory, as the POV character moving from a taxi cab into a building. He won’t notice much, so not a lot of description, and some minor scenes are only implied (for example him getting from the lobby of the building into an elevator, out of the elevator on the relevant floor and into the office where the major scene will take place).

    My major scenes are all around 800 – 1200 words, with that number sometimes sliding upward depending on the characters and what action is occurring. My major scenes usually begin with a quick but in-depth description the new setting, to ground (or include) the reader, interspersed with dialogue (if necessary), whatever action occurs, etc.

    But you’re right. Major scenes are so diverse, they’re difficult to explain. If the office belongs to the POV character, the lights are off and there’s an assailant waiting, there won’t be a lot of dialogue (or any) at the beginning, and any in-depth description of that setting probably took place in an earlier scene. In that case, during the action or after the action is resolved, only minor description would be required to reground the reader.

    Mind-boggling to explain, but a ton of fun to write. (grin)

  2. Thanks for the shout out, John (you can ask the WD editors about the ampersand).

    On the beginning, middle, and end thing, writers can generate a feeling of momentum by getting into a scene late and leaving it early (that is, without a firm resolution). A lot of early descriptive “stuff” can be cut or dropped in later (after the action starts). And trimming the end of a scene can give it a “page-turning” feel. Patterson does this all the time.

    I write in scenes, not always in chapters. I like the way Andrew Vachss structures his novels. No chapters or numbers, just white space and a drop cap and a scene as long as he needs it to be.

    • There are so many ways to divide scenes. I read a Stephen King book recently where he gave titles to chapters that were 80 or 100 pages long, but then he numbered the breaks between chapters. Not that SK is interested in my advice, but I think that’s a mistake. Anything that draws attention to the structure of a book interrupts the fictive dream.

      Not only do I number my chapters (I never name them), but the I like the word “Chapter” to proceed the number. A fight that I occasionally lose is to have the number spelled out, rather than using the numeral itself. I prefer “Chapter Thirty-Seven” over “Chapter 37”.

  3. Good advice, John!

    I write in scenes and don’t worry about splitting into chapters until much later drafts. By then, I have a better feel for the pacing of the overall novel.

    Simple transitions (driving from home to work, moving from car to office, etc.) are better summarized rather than given their own designated scene (She left for the office at 7:30. Thanks to traffic, she arrived two hours late)…unless a significant event happens during the transition; then it’s worthy of its own scene.

    Also, I like to “name” chapters so the table of contents doesn’t just show meaningless chapter numbers (esp. important on e-readers). When I go back to separate into chapters, that’s when I look for a line or quote that makes an appropriate chapter title. Works as a teaser for what’s to come in that chapter.

    • I don’t remember the last time I read a novel with a Table of Contents.

      The only time I write transition scenes is when I need to give the reader a sense that time has passed for the POV character. The example that comes to mind for me is in NATHAN’S RUN, where Nathan drives a stolen car from Virginia to Pennsylvania. I used the opportunity to get into Nathan’s head while he thought about some of his backstory.

      My editor hits me over the head again and again with “Don’t write about what doesn’t happen. Keep the story moving forward at all times.” This in mind, in your example I would probably write, She arrived at her office at 8:23–nearly two hours late thanks to jack-knifed tractor trailer on the Beltway.

      • Good post, John!

        FYI: ebook novels tend to have TOCs. For linking in ebook readers. May even be a requirement; can’t remember. Just looked up a hardback sitting next to me, and sure enough: the HDBK has no TOC but the ebook does.

        • Yes, ebooks are what I was referring to.

          BTW, John, I’ll rewrite my sample transition scene to include the jack-knifed tractor trailer. Very nice addition.

          • I don’t blame you! It gives the reader a picture rather than a bunch of facts. More than that, can show tension, setting, even character. Those few words added power.

        • It IS a requirement, although it seems like a stupid one, since all it takes is a tap to create a bookmark. Amazon will pull your book if it doesn’t have a TOC separate from the NCX version most converters create.

  4. For my romantic suspense books, I follow the “expectations” of most readers. Two scenes per chapter, one from each POV character (I normally use only two: hero and heroine.)
    Within a scene, however, there can be subdivisions to indicate a time or location shift, etc.
    I just looked at the current WIP, just getting underway. Scenes (not counting subdivisions) are: 992, 1204, 1348, and 1070 words.
    As JSB said, echoing words I’ve heard since I started writing, was that a scene should be as long as it needs to be. Ditto get in early, leave late.

  5. John – I was interested in your comment about bringing in a character who is going to play a major part in Act 2 & 3 somewhere in Act I. In my new book I want to have the POV of a homicide detective (as well as the major POV character) but the murder he investigates won’t occur until end of Act I, so that’s when he would naturally come on the scene. How would I have him make an appearance, long enough to have a POV scene of his, in a natural way before the murder occurs?

    • I interpreted John’s remark to mean you don’t spring a new POV character on the reader if he’s only going to be in one or two scenes. Sounds to me like your detective will have a lot of POV scenes and be hanging around in the book after his initial appearance. As a reader, that wouldn’t bother me. In fact, trying to keep all the characters straight in the beginning of a book is daunting.
      But John should have the last word here. I’m another self-taught writer who doesn’t know all the rules, so I’m always breaking them.

    • Every character has a first scene, and if that first scene is pivotal, that’s not a problem. It becomes dicey when a character has only one scene–and that scene is pivotal.

  6. I like Rule #1 more than the others. Maybe we should call them “guidelines.”

    Being a total novice, I wrote my one and only novel with chapter breaks that seemed logical to me. The chapters are short (65 chapters in a 60K word novel), but several people have told me they like it that way. One reader told me that it made him willing to start a new chapter even if it was late at night, knowing he could finish it quickly and make a decision about the next one. Interesting?

    • And that’s why the trend is to shorter chapters. Shorter attention spans of readers, and that “I have time to read one more chapter” becomes a major point.
      I learned early on as a reader that I had to stop in the middle of a page if I was going to get any sleep. Good chapters/scenes end with a question that the reader wants answered.

  7. Great topic, John. Here are a few great books that I’d like to recommend on the topic:

    Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
    Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
    Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
    How to Write Page-Turning Scenes by Holly Lisle
    Writing Deep Scenes by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld
    Advanced Screenwriting: Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level by Dr. Linda Seger (See Chapter 4, “Making A Scene”)
    Goal Motivation Conflict by Debra Dixon

    I am assuming everyone here already owns Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. For those who want to study how to write scenes and sequels, these books are great.

  8. Each scene should come from the perspective of only one character. George and Martha can have their row, but make it clear who is mad at who This time. Suddenly shifting to Midge the judgment-passer is called head-hopping, and is one of the weak forms of scene construction most likely to confuse the reader and cause him or her to fling the book. If Midge must be heard from, she needs a scene of her own to express herself. (Nora Roberts has used head-hopping for years, but if your publishing credits aren’t as many as hers, you don’t get the head-hopping privilege.)

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