In writing, we’re told to “kill our darlings” and get rid of the bits of writing we love if they don’t serve the story.
But what if we could those little scenes and transform them into something useful, incorporating the elements that are near and dear to our heart with the plot?
It won’t always work–some writing is just too self-conscious, too pretentious, and too wordy to survive the editing process–but you have some options of what to do with those scenes besides sending them to the chopping block.
Let’s say the scene in question is one where the main character parks her car, gets out and walks through a park…but nothing happens. She wonders around, looking at the community garden, the kids playing on the swings, and contemplates her life, her frustrations, and otherwise vents, but then gets back in her car and goes on to whatever happens next in the plot (a meeting with the antagonist to discuss releasing hostages, a date with her noncommittal boyfriend, or her lab to continue analyzing the magic sword they brought back from the alternate universe).
The scene at the park may do a few things, like giving the main character a chance to ponder and reflect, and you may love how it lets her compare herself to the plants around her, thinking that she’s like a dandelion, a weed that everyone wants to get rid of rather than a prize rose…but it may be too superfluous to stay the way it is. It may slow things down too much, because ultimately, nothing important happens. A reader could skip the scene entirely and still not miss anything important. (Of course, if you’re writing a slower paced novel, this scene may be exactly what it needs to be, but for most genres, a scene with so little connection with the rest of the story would be felt as a waste of time.)
So here are four ways to make a scene matter:
- Change the location. Take those same garden reflections and have them happen in the villain’s backyard, while she’s sneaking towards the house to determine the hostage’s location, and suddenly the scene is pivotal. Or have this take place in the sparse garden outside her lab while she waits for the locksmith (or the police) so she can get back inside after her keys are stolen and chances are, readers won’t be looking to skip ahead. Changing the location to where the main character needs to be there and isn’t just stopping to get some fresh air, and you can probably keep the reflections and musings without feeling like the scene is pointless.
- Change the cast. You can up the importance by having something happen there–the showdown with the villain, for example, where they meet and discuss the hostages. She can arrive early, have her reflections, and then worry all the while whether the villain will harm any of the kids while they’re there. Or you can have the date with the noncommittal boyfriend happen at the park, and in the lulls of conversation and interaction between her and him, she can have her musings. By adding other characters to the scene, you can make things far more important to the plot than if she is just walking along, with no threat.
- Change the emotional mood. This is partly what happens when you change the cast and location, but it can also happen in the scene without those alterations. Say you want to keep the scene in the park. You can still make the scene more important by having the threat of another character overshadowing things–maybe she’s supposed to meet with the antagonist or have her date, but the other character never shows up. The expectation would still be there, and thus the scene would be feel important than just a random visit to the park.
- Change the timing. Like all plots, your story will have its rises and falls, and if you time the musing, thoughtful scene after a great deal of action, your reader will probably be more forgiving than if it happens right on the heels of very little else happening. For example, you could have the main character walk through the park after a friend or mentor died, especially if she and the other character used to walk through the park together. Or she could go there after her boyfriend breaks up with her, and there could be added emotional impact if they met there or grew up playing together on those very swings. Both these tactics would draw the visit into the plot, making it a kind of memorial visit and not just a random stop.
Any of these will work, and sometimes, it takes a combination of them to where you can truly incorporate what you want and love with what your story needs. (And sometimes, despite all your efforts, you just have to let them go.) After all, if it looks like a weed and acts like a weed, all the pretty floral arrangements around it won’t hide the fact that it is, in fact…a plant that you don’t need in your garden.
“If you here require a practical rule from me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetuate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Arthur Quiller-Couch
“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).” Stephen King
If you’d like help and professional feedback on a particular section of writing, feel free to email me via the “Book Coaching” link. The first 2,000 words are free for new clients, even if they happen in the middle or end of the story (though obviously I may have more questions and be a bit lost if I start reading at the end).
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by hibbard, Creative Commons
7 thoughts on “4 Ways to Make a Scene Matter”
Great helpful tips! It is a heartwrenching thing to cut out those scenes we get fond of where characters are doing and saying things we want to see happen (even if it doesn’t fit in the story). I solved this by putting the ones I couldn’t part with in a “deleted/alternate scenes” section of the novel , but I really like your suggestions above and hope to make use of them! Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to write posts like this to help authors write better 🙂
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Had a squiz through your book coaching post, and wondering if you have a code for a button that links directly to it? (Like html code that would be suitable for a sidebar widget that people could use on their blogs to promote your service.)
The site address would work for some widgets, but I’ll cook up a photo-based one over the weekend and email it to you. It’s a great idea! Thanks!
(Though I must admit, I’ve never run into the phrase “had a squiz.” I had to look it up out of curiosity.) 🙂
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LOL might be an Aussie thing, or I might be showing my age 😉 Awesome looking forward to receiving it, thanks for the privilege! It’s really a great service you’re offering and from your posts about writing I can tell you think globally about the books you’re reading. Let us know when you get your own book out there too would love to read it! 🙂
I’m particularly drawn to “Change the Timing”. I think there’s a sense that stories always need to have something going on, that they need to always be building towards some kind of climax, but there also needs to be a cool down, time to let the audience settle, so that when the next conflict does start building, the audience will feel it again, instead of becoming desensitized to it.
I think doing those quieter “cool down” scenes is very challenging, but also very important, to allow the emotional weight to be digested by the audience.
Thank you for sharing.
What a great post. I cut some scenes from my first novel because it wasn’t going anywhere. I was, and still am. quite upset about it, but your ideas will help me in the future I’m sure. Thanks a lot.
It’s rough to take out scenes, so finding a place to make it fit is always a nice change. 🙂