How to Determine Scene Length

Cinematic Story Telling Yesterday I read the “Indian Jones: The Last Crusade” screenplay. Having recently read “Avatar”, it was obvious that the length of scenes have greatly shortened over time. Audience attention spans being greatly reduced over the past two decades might have something to do with it, but even with the cutting edge action in “Indiana Jones”, many of the scenes would be considered too long by today’s audience.

During the screenplay workshops I’ve conducted worldwide, one question arises in the middle of every session, “How long should I make the scene?” No one likes my answer, “As long as it needs to be, in order to tell your story in the best way possible, but not long enough to bore your audience.” I’ve never been thanked for that advice, no matter how much they accept the truth of it.

So I’ve decided to create some guidelines to help writers calculate the answer for themselves:

  1. A scene should only make or reveal one key storyline point. Every writer I’ve met has struggled with this concept because most think that in order to make a great film every scene needs to be complex and filled with information. However, the simpler the scene, the easier it is for the audience to follow complex ideas. Therefore, it is better to break up a three point scene into three scenes.
  2. Focus on the Main Character’s goal. Most long scenes became long when the writer lost track of the actor’s goal and started developing a supporting character to the same level as the main character. We sometimes forget that the only reason a supporting character is in a film is to reveal something about the main character. By focusing on his goal, the story shifts our attention to only the things of importance, clarifying the message.
  3. Review the previous and next scenes. Every story has a pace and rhythm that shows up in the length of the film’s scenes. If the scene falls into a faster section of the story, the scene will be just as short as the ones surrounding it. If it is in the middle of more relaxed paced scenes, it too will conform to a similar length. The exception is when a scene is put in to change the pace. If during a high action sequence the writer feels a need to let the audience breath, he inserts a longer scene to accomplish the task (possibly the lull before the storm). The opposite can also be effective when a short scene is slipped in between scenes representing a more status quo type of pace (An emotional jolt to regain the audience’s attention).
  4. Everything is said that needs to be said. Expanding a scene just because the writer likes it, is the kiss of death, especially in Act 2 where stories have a tendency to die on their own. Once all the right information is in the scene, it is at the right length, unless the writer added in all kinds of additional information that’s irrelevant.
  5. Make the subtext clear. The more obvious the scene, the shorter it can be. However, the more subtext used, the more interesting the scene and the more length is required for the interchange. During the age of “the shorter the scene the better,” writers sometimes forget that a scene twice as long with great subtext feels shorter than a short scene written on the nose.

Motion pictures are a collaboration of the arts and sciences. This overarching fact gives rise to the screenwriter who must put his heart on the page, while scientifically structuring it in a way that the audience can receive the message and be moved by it. The same holds true for the length of scenes.

The writer must find the exact length that allows him to share his passionate message, while entertaining the audience. That perfect balance, which is only achieved by less than 10% of the screenplays I read annually, makes the difference between a great film worth watching numerous times and a common film.

Copyright © 2012 By CJ Powers
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2 thoughts on “How to Determine Scene Length

  1. Great thoughts, CJ! I have shared it around with others and on Christianfilmmakers.org. Another point I would add is that the audiences eyes take in all the visuals in a scene fairly quickly and after awhile both the eyes and the mind begin to drift away from the screen.

    • Paul,

      Great comment! I find you’re right, as most filmmakers don’t realize how much information is in the visuals. Allowing the mind to refresh and then drawn back into the story makes the audeince more active in the storyline. Thanks for sharing!

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