How To Make The Most Of Scenes In Short Stories

We speak about scene often in writing and especially in short stories. The past few weeks with we have discussed lengthening and shortening our stories. One of the suggestions was to either add or reduce your scenes, but perhaps we should look at what a scene is.

You need roughly 60 scenes for a novel of about 80 000 words, but that is only if you follow the guidelines exactly. The ‘rules’ for this have relaxed a lot over the past few years and varies from writer to writer.

James Patterson is known for very short scenes and chapters and this suits the fast-paced nature of many of his novels. He would have more than 60 scenes and a writer who writes longer scenes would then have less than 60. Counting scenes helps me to know if I am on track, but it is by no means something that dictates my story.

When we write short stories it also helps to look at our scenes. A scene is roughly 1 200 – 1 500 words, this also varies from writer to writer and even genre to genre, but it is nice to have a starting point. So, if you are writing a 1200-word short story it makes sense to write your short story as one scene.

Regardless of the numbers, what should happen in a scene?

A scene should have a goal, a conflict and a disaster.

  1. The Goal: Your character must want or need something at the beginning of a scene. If you are writing a novel or a short story with several scenes this scene goal must be related to the story goal. If you only have one scene it will be the story goal. What must or what does your character want to do? They have a plan of action that is going to help them get what they want.
  1. The Conflict: You character isn’t going skip to the finish line, are they? No, you have to add some drama, make it hard for them. The conflict usually comes from the antagonist or opposition character, but can also come from the setting, the mental state of the character etc. Conflict is fiction. Bring it on. Conflict does not have to be a fist fight, it can be subtler than that as well. You can also substitute the word conflict with complication.
  1. The Disaster: A good scene always ends on a disaster or hanger. This is what propels your character into the next scene. This can be where they either achieve or fail to reach their goal. If you are writing a story with only one scene this will be the ending. If you have more than one scene, this gives you the goal for the next scene.

Janet Fitch also has three tips for scenes which help me:

She says a scene should:

  1. Start and end in the same place.
  2. Start and end in a different place emotionally
  3. Your character can’t go back, it is a point of no return. They must choose a new path.

Try this exercise to see if you can identify how writers structure their stories.


  1. Read three short stories.
  2. Count the number of scenes.
  3. Try to identify the goal, conflict and disaster for each scene.

This helps me to identify the structure of my story and gives me an idea of how to order the story. Remember to look at your own stories as well.

Happy Writing.

 by Mia Botha