Scenes can be delightful, sad, poignant, tense, or scary. They can become a reader’s favorite part or most dreaded section, but one thing a scene should never do is just sit there, occupying space.
So here are three questions you need to ask every scene. Plotters might ask themselves these questions beforehand, while we pantsters will probably have to ask these questions when we go back and edit, but at some point, we need to have this conversation or we run the risk of keeping scenes in our story, not because they’re useful, but just because we wrote them.
1. What it’s doing for your plot/ characters/ setting / world?
Not every scene has to move the plot forward. In fact, I’m a big fan of scenes that help round out characters, showing them as real people who deal with real life and emotions and struggles and even have moments of happiness. But you, as an author, need to know what the scene offers your story. Is it adding humor? Illustrating the way the worldbuilding works? Expanding the setting? Embellishing the mood?
When you first wrote it, you might have no idea why the scene existed. Just that it fit, that you wanted to write it, or that it “felt right,” but before you publish your story, you should go back and make sure the scenes actually do something you want. Every scene will do something, even if it’s just to slow down the pace and bore the reader, so finding out what a scene does is essential (and, if you struggle with making these kinds of identifications, you might find a book coach helpful, as “big picture” editors like this can help you figure out what your scenes are doing and whether they’re working for your vision or not).
2. Does it belong where it is?
Once you figure out what your scene “brings to the table,” you have to figure out whether it fits. For example, if your genre is fantasy, you might not want a scene that details how some gizmo or bit of technology works (unless your story is a cross-over) because readers who like fantasy expect magic or natural abilities more than “this is how this gun works.” If your tone is generally serious, you might not want a scene chock-ful of puns and jokes–you’d either want to add more humor overall, or consider trimming it back a bit. (This is why scenes like Frodo’s bath and even Tom Bombadil was likely cut from The Lord of the Rings movie; the tone they were aiming for was one of ominous-ness, of worry and concern and epic grandeur rather than daily concerns and fun.)
And it could just be a case of it being in the wrong place. Humor right in the middle of a sad scene, or happiness in between two tough, tense battles might feel like too much of a jolt on your readers. Again, a little variety can be a good thing, but if it takes over, it could change the whole tone and feel of your book, inadvertently defeating your goals.
3. Is it worth it?
You can’t get rid of every scene, or you’ll have no book. If you eliminate scenes solely based on plot, your readers might not be able to appreciate the world you’ve built, the characters you’ve created, or the complexity of the plot. Some richness is a good thing.
Sometimes, a change of pace is just what you need, but you have to weigh the pros and cons of keeping (or adding) a scene. You have to decide if it brings more value than “slowness.” Or, conversely, it could bring more speed than you normally use, having things happening quickly and changing the pace in the other direction…and again, you have to decide if the way it changes things is “for the good.”
And, if not, you have to accept that. Sometimes good stuff ends up “on the cutting room floor.” Scenes you love just don’t fit, and you have to take them out (but save them for a special edition release. After all, if you love it, there will probably be other fans who like it, too). 🙂
These three questions can be overwhelming if applied to every scene, so you might let your beta readers, editors, or your own reading sense be your guide as to which scenes need further investigation and which ones are fine as they are. If a particular spot is troubling you or feels too slow, too fast, or too wordy, take a closer look.
You want your story to follow your dreams, your hopes, and your heart, but you also want it to be enjoyable for readers, too (or you shouldn’t bother publishing it). You want it to work together well, to flow, and to make sense, and by asking yourself these tough questions, you may bring yourself a lot of worry and bother and frustration, but in the end, you’ll have a better book for it.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by markgraf, Creative Commons