How long should a scene be? How short is too short? And is it possible to make it too long? I get asked these questions almost daily while I’m teaching, whether at WriteForTheStage or university.
And the question I always give is: make the scene earn its place. And while that doesn’t directly answer the question, it encompasses what’s important about this most essential of dramatic building blocks.
This article explores how long a scene in a play should be. With examples that should help bring some clarity to this frequently asked question.
Ready? Let’s go!
What is a scene?
Before we address how long a scene should be, it’s helpful to remind ourselves what a scene is.
And while some theatre plays are one long continuous scene, most are broken down into sections that help in some way to progress the plot.
You could say that:
- plays are made of acts, and
- acts are made of scenes.
And these are the essential building blocks of stories that help us:
- Progress time
- Focus upon and answer dramatic questions
- Move the plot forward
Therefore, scenes are made of action. And action drives the plot.
What is action?
We often consider action in a film as a car chase, an explosion, a gunfight, or a protagonist trying to overcome the impenetrable clutch of an evil-doer.
But action is also much more subtle than the bangs and crashes of an “action movie”.
Action is characters DOING things to each other.Read more: Playwriting tips: How long should a scene be?
How long should a scene be? – A Doll’s House
Consider Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the scene where Krogstad threatens to expose Nora as a forger if she doesn’t persuade Helmer (her husband) to keep Krogstad on at the bank.
What follows is a sequence of dramatic actions where Nora tries to convince Krogstad to ease off the pressure, all while Krogstad threatens her in the strongest possible way. The characters are forced into conflict and do everything they can (strategy) to win their objectives.
So, whatever they say to each other is full of “transitive action”; every line of dialogue is an effort to convince (or in some way change) the other character.
In other words, the scene is full of action – the characters are DOING things to each other to achieve an objective.
And the scene ends when the central (or dramatic) question (will Nora persuade Krogstad to keep schtum?) reaches a conclusion.
A scene is a mini-play
If a scene is an essential building block of the play, then it’s useful to consider it a mini-play in its own right.
Think about each scene having a beginning, an inciting incident leading to a conflict, a middle crisis, and an ending (a resolution).
First off, it’s essential to find the right starting point for a scene.
You don’t always need to build up the tension for each scene – instead, start where the tensions are already high.
It’s often best to start where the tensions and the conflicts are about to pop.
The inciting incident
This is the point of change that will transform everything forever (and not necessarily for the best). I think the best type of inciting incident is a decision where the character is forced into making a choice that will present repercussions.
We tend to think of the inciting incident as happening at the end of Act 1 in the 3-act structure. Still, each scene could have an inciting incident that progresses or hinders the protagonist’s path towards their objective.
The middle conflict
This is the scene’s dramatic core, often provoked by the inciting incident. This is where the characters fight to win their objectives (again, solidified by the inciting incident) and where they implicitly or explicitly strategise to either:
- Encourage the other to accept something
- Stop the other from doing something
- Give up something
- Join with them
- Part from them
These are all big objectives, and it’s the role of the playwright to put obstacles in the way via the antagonist’s desires, making it hard for the protagonist to get what they want.
This is the moment at the end of the scene where something has changed – a moment of realisation.
In some way, the resolution affirms whether the character’s path has progressed or been further complicated.
At the end of a great scene, we – the audience – also recognise what has changed. We’ve been taken on a journey that has driven us closer to the end of the play.
What makes a great scene?
The best theatre scenes introduce an idea, building upon it through tension and uncertainty until the idea evolves and/or resolves.
A scene is a point of change. If the world is still the same at the end of the scene, then – perhaps – the scene hasn’t yet earned its place as a building block of the plot.
Unforgettable scenes contain:
- interesting character action that reveals who the characters really are
- through the challenging choices they’re forced to make.
- Does that short scene have an impact on the overall plot?
- Have you satisfyingly explored the emotional depths of the moment?
Or have you been rushing to “cover” an aspect of the plot? Have you considered how your characters feel?
Ultimately, has that scene changed something significant that moves us closer to the end of the play?
How to write an unforgettable scene
Consider a scene as a moment in the play born of a burning question essential to the plot.
Consider how that question affects the characters involved in the scene (and how it affects the other characters in the world of the play).
- Pose a question
- Answer the question, and
- Force one (or all) of the characters to react emotionally
You could say that great scenes are defined by what unforgettable characters face and how they respond.
Is a scene in a play like a chapter in a book?
Novels typically use chapters to catapult time. Sometimes, the story’s perspective changes from one chapter to the next, telling the story from the eyes, minds, or voices of different characters.
However, while this approach can work in a book, it muddies the focus of a theatre script – we typically want a theatre script to be the protagonist’s story.
A book’s chapter often ends where a fundamental question essential to the story has been answered.
And this is the key to understanding scene construction in a theatre script.
The best scenes follow the path of a dramatic question, edging us towards a crisis, a conflict, and a resolution.
A dramatic question is best when it focuses on the actions of the characters.
Will one character do something to another to get what they want?
Because it’s this pursuit that leads them closer to achieving their super objective – and this is what they believe will solve the problem of the world.
Playwriting is about limitations
Playwriting is often at its best when it’s economical – when we:
- Limit the number of characters (and the play’s principal perspective)
- Limit the number of locations
- Limit the timescale
While a novel might span a lifetime, with many characters and in various locations, theatre – as a storytelling medium – is innately more limited due to the technicalities of big casts, big scene changes, and complicated timelines.
But that shouldn’t ever limit our creativity within the form.
Indeed, as playwrights, we embrace the medium’s limitations to tell a story that uses the theatrical space as a character of the piece.
So, can plays have short scenes?
Some plays have short scenes. For example, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan is a sequence of short scenes that literally blend into each other.
Indeed, the script breaks the convention of indicating where one scene ends and the next begins. But through Macmillan’s skilful writing, we understand that the scene has moved on because the action (and usually the location) has moved on.
So, Lungs opens during an existential crisis in an Ikea queue; and without warning, we’re catapulted to the car park. And it works because the scene flows from one to the next without interruption.
However, with short scenes, there are several things to consider:
One of the principal considerations has always to be the audience. How will short scenes affect their engagement with the story?
Each time you bring the lights down, and someone scrapes a piece of furniture across the stage, you pull the audience out of the action. You’ve worked hard to create tension and conflict through character actions that keep the audience guessing;
then, you bring down the lights and make them sit in the dark.
Sure, a quick lights up/lights down isn’t a problem – it’s a convention.
But if the lights come up, and an actor walks across the stage, looks at the stars, thinks something, writes a note in their notebook, and then the lights go down again, you’re significantly slowing the pace of your storytelling.
Aren’t transitions down to the director?
To a degree, a skilful director will know how to ease those awkward transitions. But why force them to make difficult decisions? Does that moment warrant an entire scene?
Is there another way?
Again, go back to the mantra: does the scene earn its place? And consider if there’s another way you can integrate the action of that short scene into a longer one.
This isn’t to say that longer scenes are necessarily better than short ones – I mean, no one wants to be bored in the theatre.
This isn’t about stringing out a short scene with endless dialogue. It’s about constructing your scenes to integrate a series of dramatic questions that serve the character’s objectives towards a goal.
If the purpose of your short scene is to show how the character prefers being alone, force them into a scene where they can’t be alone. And show us how that affects them. This has greater dramatic (or comedic) potential, after all.
Theatre can’t cut like a film
In a film, you can snap cut from outer space to a three-bed semi in Croydon in the blink of an eye.
You can’t really do that on the stage – at least, not without stylising it.
Of course, there’s always a way and a skilled director will understand how to transition from one scene to the next without interrupting the flow of the action.
How long should a scene be? The Aristotelian Unities
When writing your theatre scene, consider the Aristotelian Unities:
- Unity of Time – the action occurring over no more than 24 hours, from dawn till dusk, across one single day
- Unity of Place – the action of the play is set in a single physical location
- Unity of Action – there’s one principal line of action, with no or few subplots
- Closed time/Closed location – in a set timescale and in one location
And while these developed over time (Shakespeare, for example, developed his work in Open Time/Open Place), they still stand firm, offering a good discipline for theatre writing.
Think about how that covert moment in another room might work if it HAD to happen in front of everyone else. Maybe your protagonist would need to get people out of the room somehow?
How many scenes should I write in a one-hour play?
Again, there’s no direct answer to this. Make every scene earn its place with a satisfying central core that addresses a question that helps progress (or complicate) the plot.
Lungs is one long scene. David Eldridge’s Beginnings (as performed at The Royal Exchange in 2023) is one long scene.
But these plays are broken into units of action that perform as a string of continuous scenes.
How I deal with scenes in my plays
I’ve typically opted for long scenes that follow a dramatic question that progresses the plot.
For example, my play The Call of Nature is effectively two long scenes: one drug-riddled, post-clubbing, rave pet entrapment situation, followed by the terrible aftermath and the enactment of revenge the next morning.
It all takes place in one location (apart from burning the church down in the final act), but it’s all in the space of 24 hours. And the only lights up/down are at the interval.
Well done for getting to the end of this blog! I hope I’ve given some food for thought and some inspiration.
But if you have any questions, add them to the comments below.
Or check out our new short online course, Finding Starting Points, to get you going with your next play or novel.