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Scene lengths in short stories

Quantitatively, how is a short story usually split into scenes? How many scenes are they? How long are they? I'm interested in these questions as a way of sanity-checking my scene lengths.

To answer these questions, I looked at an arbitrary (convenience) sample of six short stories I'd read by five different authors. I calculated the page lengths by eyeballing the print book. I counted scenes by looking for hard breaks, ignoring soft ones.

For convenience I split scenes by hard breaks, ignoring soft scene breaks. Hard breaks are things like a visible blank line, or a *, a ***, a horizontal rule, etc. By soft breaks I mean transitional sentences like:

So after I finished my visit with Rosemary and Alfred, I took the bus to the church where the Atacama mummies were being exhibited.

This comes from "Omphalos" by Ted Chiang. It's a soft break between a "visit" scene and a "church" scene.

Besides the real lengths I also collected the total nominal page length of each story. A story spanning printed pages 1 to 31 inclusive would have a nominal page length of 31 pages.

This gives the following data:

Story Length (nominal pages) Number of scenes Mean scene length (real pages) Variance in scene length (real pages) Scene lengths (real pages)
"Sparks" (Elmore Leonard) 17 4 4.13 4.55 6.5, 2, 2, 6
"Cane Sprouts" (Hannah Lee Kidder) 19 6 3.00 4.00 1, 7, 2, 2, 2, 4
"Omphalos" (Ted Chiang) 33 6 5.43 3.28 5, 7, 7, 7.25, 2.5, 3.8
"State Change" (Ken Liu) 16 12 1.37 0.48 3, 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, 1.5, 1, 0.8, 1.33, 1, 1, 0.8, 1.5
"Tower of Babylon" (Ted Chiang) 28 15 1.76 0.68 0.25, 1, 2, 1.5, 2, 1.25, 1, 2.75, 3, 1.5, 2.2, 2, 0.5, 2.75, 2.75
"The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" (Angela Carter) 9 10 0.8 0.25 0.33, 2, 0.66, 0.8, 1, 0.66, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.04

There are two general clusters here:

  1. Stories with few scenes, with a few relatively long ones – averaging about 4-5 pages. In this category: "Sparks" by Elmore Leonard and "Cane Sprouts" by Hannah Lee Kidder. Also "Omphalos" by Ted Chiang.
  2. Stories with lots of scenes, mostly short ones – about 1-2 pages on average. In this category: "State Change" by Ken Liu, "Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang, and "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" by Angela Carter.

I'd tentatively call the first group "chatty" and the second "plotty" or dense. The "chatty" stories include two stories with long conversational scenes, "Sparks" and "Cane Sprouts." The second group though includes "Omphalos" which isn't terribly chatty.

Looking at the actual scene lengths, it looks like the variance in scene length tends larger in the few-scene "chatty" stories, smaller in the many-scene "plotty" stories.

Something that surprises me here is the number of scenes. Even the "shortest" story by number of scenes has four scenes. The longest has fifteen.

There are two issues with this analysis. First, the pages aren't directly comparable, because they come from different books. Second, I suspect "Omphalos" is skewed high due to ignoring soft scene breaks.

One complication with this of course is that pages aren't directly comparable. Each short story belonged to one of six distinct books – in other words, I found each short story in a different book. Different books have different page sizes, page layouts, and font sizes, so may be able to fit more or fewer words per page. Ideally you would count words to get around this, but that is a lot more work than it seems worthwhile to do right now.

I suspect the mean scene length of "Omphalos" is skewed higher than it should be. I don't recall the scenes being so long when I read it, acconting for soft breaks. If it's higher it's probably because I'm ignoring those soft breaks. I know I ignored at least one – the above quoted sentence about the Atacama mummies. This could also have happened with the other two "long" short stories, though I think it's less likely. The three 1-2 page average stories make liberal use of hard breaks and from skimming I don't think they either do or could use more soft breaks on top of that.

Overall, though, I think this analysis gives decent answers. It looks like that answer is: Denser stories tend to have many scenes (10+) of 1-2 pages and some even shorter ones, while slower, chattier short stories tend to have fewer scenes (4-6) with a few "long" scenes of 4-5 pages. Regardless of type it looks generally reasonable for most scenes to be 1-2 pages.