Question: "How many scenes does a movie have on average?"

August 19th, 2009 by

Another open forum question — from pictopedia:

You mentioned that you’re starting to construct a story with 10 backbone units. “Save the Cat” embeds a similar basic set into around 40 units (beats, moments, scenes) I guess. I’m wondering if these numbers refer to actual scenes. How many scenes does a movie have on average) Do yo use a general rule for the total number of scenes you are writing, or do you just create the backbone units as individual scenes and let everything else around it take up as many scenes as needed?

That’s a pretty complex question, pictopedia, because it’s mixing narrative elements. On the one hand, we have what you call “10 backbone units” — a good description of what I refer to as “10 Major Plot Points.”

[The phrase "plot point" derives from the original screenwriting guru Syd Field and means a significant event that spins the plot in another direction.]

Those 10 Major Plotline Points, as articulated here in one of my lectures on Narrative Throughline, do create the ‘backbone’ of the Plotline.

For those not familiar with the work of the late Blake Snyder, here is the Wikipedia entry for him. And this specific reference tied to your comment:

In his book, Snyder gives greatest emphasis on the importance of structure through his Blake Snyder Beat Sheet or the “BS2″ which includes the 15 essential “beats” or plot points that all stories should contain.

Snyder’s method expands the 15 beats further into 40 beats, which are laid out on “The Board.” The Board is divided into 4 rows, with each row representing a quarter of the story, namely the 1st Act, the 1st half of the 2nd Act, the 2nd half of the 2nd Act, and the 3rd Act.

So I’m talking major plot points.
Snyder’s talking plot points or “beats”.
And then you raise a third potential narrative form: Scenes.

In years past, I used to teach that the average scene was 2 pages long. Since a typical script clocked in at 120 pages, then you could basically expect to see around 60 scenes in a script.

However, I think that has changed. I have no numbers or facts to bear this out, but it just feels to me like scenes are getting shorter – and as a result, there are more of them in contemporary movies. Perhaps between 75-90 scenes per script.

Today when I write, instead of keeping in mind a 2-page per average scene, I’m thinking 1-and-a-half pages per scene.

[Those numbers will vary according to the genre of the script, the style the writer chooses to take in telling the story, and other factors.]

So we’ve managed to parse your question into three elements:

Major plot points: That is big turning points in the story.

Plot points / beats: Events, including major plot points, that impact the plot.

Scenes: The actual building blocks by which you construct the entire story from beginning consecutively to the end.

But do I have an answer for you?

Yes.
And no.

There is no set ‘rule’ or Golden Number of scenes, major plot points, or — no disrespect to Blake Snyder — plot points / beats.

There just isn’t.

I can show you hundreds of movies that have 10 major plot points.

Snyder’s books can show you dozens that have 15 plot points or 40 “beats.”

And I’m sure I can dredge up successful movies that have 60 scenes.
Or 75.
Or 90.

But there is no set number of plot points, beats, or scenes for a ‘typical’ script.

Why?
Because there is no such thing as a typical script.

Every story is different.
Every writer is different.

Your goal is not to write a script that has x amount of plot points, beats, or scenes…
Your goal is to write a whopping good story that engrosses and excites the reader.

Of course, in the prep-writing phase, where you’re doing all sorts of brainstorming, character development, research, plotting, outlining, and so on, various screenplay paradigms — 3 acts, 10 major plot point, 15 plot points, 40 beats, 60 scenes, whatever — can benefit your story-crafting process by helping you to wrangle all the great story ‘stuff’ you’ve amassed into some semblance of order.

Then hopefully, once you get to FADE IN, you’re in tune enough with your characters and your story world that you can go into the story, write the hell out of it, and when you reach FADE OUT, it somehow works.

But as Robert McKee says, these are not rules, they are principles.
Or as I say, not rules, but tools.
Tools to help us dig into the story…
Into our characters…
To find the story that is yearning to be told.

So a roundabout way of addressing your query.
Not sure if I provided an answer that is satisfactory…
But there is no real satisfactory answer other than this:
You need to learn all this shit…
All these principles and paradigms…
Because they’re how Hollywood understands story to work…
And they are in some shadowy sort of way a reflection of the organic essence of screenplay story.

But these paradigms and principles only have value…
if they feed your creative process.

Once you’ve learned them…
And used them enough to grasp the essence of the craft of screenwriting…
If they do not feed your creative process…
If they work against your creative process…
Feel free to drop-kick them in the direction of the next aspiring screenwriter.

Hopefully they’ll be able to use them.

13 thoughts on “Question: "How many scenes does a movie have on average?"

  1. Alissa says:

    I think this may have been the first thing I've read about the number of scenes in a movie that makes any sort of sense.

    I write fiction as well, and I've never seen in a fiction-writing book or on a fiction-writing forum anything that lays out the number of chapters a novel should have. So, I was always a bit confused about these "rules" dictating the number of scenes.

  2. Joshua James says:

    Great, great post, Scott.

  3. E.C. Henry says:

    I'm with Alissa and Joshua, great thought provoking post for screenwriters, Scott. What are you, some kinda teacher or somethin'?!

    - E. (smiley face) C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

    I would like to add that "talky" scenes obveously bloat the average. Would be very interested to see how Quintin Tarantino's scripts do per scene average, as opposed to something of the ilk of an action film like "10,000 B.C." which has very little dialog.

  4. Désirée says:

    Great post.

    You addresses the importance to know the difference between beats/plot points and scenes.

    I've never thought about the number of scenes I need, only to get them as short as possible (depending on mood and theme ans such).

  5. Laura Reyna says:

    I was never completely sold on Snyder's method b/c 1) I find his "Beat Sheet" confusing & filled with gaps… 2) I don't entirely get this 40 beats/scene cards thing when it's paired with the 15 beats.

    Modern movies have way more than 40scenes. But I think he says in his book this is a starting number & you can add more as you go. But then why start with 40? It just seems like an arbitrary number he made up.

    And the board & index card method pre-dates Snyder's book by many many yrs. I 1st used it in 1992.

    Like Scott writes, every movie is different. The number of scenes depends on the story.

    A good way to see if you're in the ballpark is to look at a few scripts of popular movies that are in your genre, and count the scenes.

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  7. pictopedia says:

    Thanks!!! Greatly appreciate the explanation! That has helped me a lot. Am still not sure if the Major Plot Points "ARE" scenes (on average) or not, but I did get answers to a few more questions I didn't even know I had.

  8. Bob says:

    a little late to this but, having just come across it looking for information re: "number of scenes in a screenplay," i have to say thank you, scott, for the post. i've been talking lately to too many people who seem to place format (and such) above story, seemingly more impressed by a clean-looking page – not to devalue the purpose of a clean-looking page – than a Good Story Well Told.

    from the heart, not the manual.

  9. Scott says:

    @bob: I got your comment in my email. Going to use it and my original post for a Thursday update because you bring up an important issue.

  10. Jack says:

    Your Narrative Throughline is a god send. I'm starting to develop some ideas into functioning screenplays (to sell or produce myself) and while I understood (and had even just done a plot point outline that closely resembled yours) plot points and flow of story, you document makes it that much clearer and able to communicate (as I may be working with others on these screenplays).

    Thank you so much!!! I wish I could flattr you (flattr.com, check it out!!!).

  11. Scott says:

    @Jack: There is much more to Narrative Throughline which I get into through my Screenwriting Master Class Core I and Core II courses on structure and character. You can find out more here.

  12. Don’t know about hard and fast rules but here are three action movies: Taken–43 scenes, Salt–37 scenes, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol-51 scenes.

  13. Devil Wears Prada–49, Crazy Stupid Love–48, Bridesmaids—45, Safe House–43 … Seems like action flicks stay close to 40 and more talky comedies are closer to 50.

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