Making Every Scene Count: When to Let Go
I’m starting this week’s post with a disclaimer: Everything I say from this point forward refers to the editing stage. Do not—I repeat, do not—attempt to abide by these suggestions while writing a first draft. When you’re getting to know your story and characters, it’s important to let your mind wander a bit. That’s what a first draft is for. The editing stage is where you worry about tightening things up, and until you reach that point, you shouldn’t be wasting your time or energy on determining the importance or relevance of specific scenes. As long as you understand hard choices might need to be made later involving the annihilation of words you love to assure a smooth, page-turning story, then you’re golden. Write your little heart out and hold off the stress for later edits. 🤣
Writing a griping page-turner—a novel readers just can’t put down—requires quite a few elements to fall perfectly into place. One of those is the tightness and effectiveness of your individual scenes. Each scene has to serve a purpose and all the “fluff” scenes gotta go.
The difficult thing is, us writers get so close to our work it’s hard for us to see when a scene has failed to earn its place. It’s even harder for us to nix those words when the time comes to do so. Unfortunately, I can’t help with the latter, but I can assist with the former.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves and do this thang. I’m going to give you four questions to ask yourself—during the editing stage!—while reviewing your manuscript. I’ll also give you a few tips on how to fix a scene if it’s failing you… ya know, things to consider aside from taking out the big ol’ editing sledgehammer, of course. *shudder*
Does Your Scene Advance the Plot?
To keep readers engaged, your plot should always be chugging forward. No, this doesn’t mean every scene must include a major revelation or high intensity action, but it does have to include something that moves the story along. Even if it’s something as simple as a breadcrumb or a bit of knowledge gained the character will have to act on later.
Note: Not every scene has to actively move the plot forward, but those scenes that don't should be minimal in number and must serve another vital purpose (as we’ll discuss shortly).
What to do if it doesn’t
If you love a scene but realize there isn’t anything going on aside from some really killer description or quirky dialogue you can’t bear to part with, consider ways to make the scene serve a purpose. If you have your characters lounging in bed chatting, for example, and you adore their banter but they don’t say anything of value… could you slip in some important backstory? Or have one of your characters reveal something the reader needs to know to understand something that happens later in the book? Or what if you moved the banter to a different setting where you could slip in foreshadowing or creative breadcrumbing via an interaction with a passerby/side character or simply use the moment to introduce a new environment that'll be important later?
Look at what you already have and see if there’s some way to connect it to your larger plot or to enhance a subplot. If you can’t find a way to make that happen… it might be time to consider letting it go. (With one exception, which I’ll discuss next.)
Does the Scene Serve to Advance Character Development?
A scene must do one of two things: advance the plot or advance character development. If you can achieve both, it makes for a much more compelling read, but, as I previously mentioned, scenes sometimes exist for only one purpose. That’s a hundred percent A-OK as long as they don’t make up a large chunk of the novel. Remember: the tighter your writing and the more you keep things moving, the more intriguing the read will be.
Even in plot-driven novels, character development is imperative. Your reader needs to connect with your characters to keep them invested in the story. Therefore, character development deserves to take front seat priority. But consider this: is there a way to take your character development scene and mesh it with another, more plot driven one? Or can you add some plot advancing material? It never hurts to ponder on the idea a bit, at the very least.
Don’t forget… your mission is to have a solid and interesting plot, but you also must have a convincing and satisfactory character development arc. It’s important to fit character development into as many scenes as possible. You want your reader to get a good feel for where your characters are at the beginning, experience their shift as the novel progresses, then truly see the character believably changed by the end. This requires lots of scene time to show these nuances effectively.
What to do if it doesn’t
Consider mapping out your characters' progression. It makes things significantly easier if you set one goal for your characters to achieve by the end of the novel. You can do this after finishing your novel, but if you’re a planner, it can make things less complicated if you include your character development in the outline. But if you’re doing it after the fact, be sure a good chunk of your scenes somehow contribute to the change you want your character to make. Even if it’s something as small as a thought they might not have had before or a minor realization that will ultimately steer them toward a bigger, more profound one later in the novel. This can often be accomplished with a single sentence. It doesn't have to be convoluted to be effective.
Sometimes the right answer is to leave the scene alone. As I mentioned before, every scene should include either plot progression or character development. While it’s nice if you can manage both, it’s acceptable if only one is covered. If a scene is important to your plot, but does jack-nothing for character development, that’s okay! Take a moment during edits to consider whether you could make it serve both functions, but if it can’t, move on.
Does the Scene Repeat a Function Already Covered by Another Scene?
I see a lot of writers get stuck here. They have a scene that, yep, totally advances the plot and/or develops their character. So, they move on and leave it as-is. The only problem is, they have another scene doing the exact same thing. Or, in some cases, multiple scenes. When that’s the case, one (or multiple) of them must either get the axe or be combined with another scene serving a true purpose to the progression of the plot/character development.
Note: While this is somewhat off topic, it’s very important. Please, for all things good in this world, do not make a habit of repeating the same exact scene from different characters’ POVs. Sure, you might end up with new character development by doing this, as the reader can see how the other person viewed what happened, but it puts your story at a dead standstill. Worse, it regresses the plot. Readers will get very bored, very fast if you make them relive what they’ve already seen. There are plenty of creative and effective ways to show how both sides reacted to a specific event without replaying it verbatim on the page.
Are You Holding onto a Scene Simply Because You Like the Writing or “It’s Fun?”
I’ve touched on this above, but it’s an important point and something you should consider when doing your evaluation of each scene. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to invent purpose for a scene because I’m so in love with the flowery writing or hilarious banter I can’t possibly let the words go.
Again, as I said before, if you’re able to work magic and actually create purpose for your beloved scene, you’re a god of the writing world. But if you can’t? I’m sorry to say, it’s Band-Aid ripping time. That scene's gotta go. But don’t delete the words forever—save them somewhere. You might be able to rework them to use in a later novel where the scene lends itself to character or plot progression in a way it simply can’t in your current story.
Or, heck, if you really love it… use it as a “deleted scene” teaser in your newsletter! Readers love getting extra tidbits of the characters they adore and it can be great for marketing!
Until next time,