Thursday, December 17, 2009

Scenes that Matter

I recently received a tip about the editorial process that struck me as common sense... At least it SOUNDED like common sense until I began editing my first draft. HA!  Man, oh man, did I have some serious revisions to complete because I hadn't thought about the concept while writing.  The tip?  Cut every scene in which nothing significant happens.

For example: Let's say in one particular chapter you write two scenes, A & B.

Scene A: A man goes to the doctor and browses a magazine while waiting. A picture in the magazine reminds him of his high school sweetheart.
Scene B: Flash to the memory of the high school sweetheart. She was his first love... and she died in a car accident.  It's a very moving scene and gives a lot of insight into the man - who happens to now be a commitment-phobe.
The chapter ends. At the start of the next chapter, the man is no longer in the doctor's office.

Keep Scene B, it's important.

Scratch Scene A, because NOTHING happened in it. Yes, the magazine he picked up while there is what reminded him of the sweetheart, but that could happen anywhere. So cut it and just stick with the flashback.

If you come across a scene that doesn't serve to move your story forward, creating (or adding to) tension and/or developing character, then that scene doesn't really have a purpose in your story. Use the chainsaw on it and move on :-)

Another really great peice of advice was to create a "deleted scenes" file. Mine is about 22 pages long so far (and growing). Not only is it beneficial in case I ever decide to recreate the scenes by adding something more important to them, but it also made cutting the scenes SO much easier! The text I slaved over won't be lost forever - just put on hold until I take the time to make it into something better (either for the project I took it from, or for something down the road).

Sometimes scenes are written to aid readers in following the story. These scenes spell things out - and often give information that the reader should already have picked up on. I'm pretty sure that this is what makes certain scenes so boring! It's like giving a reader a GPS for your story. They go on autopilot, which may seem convenient at first, but in doing so - the reader misses miss out on the beautiful ride along the way (AND they definitely don't get to make the wrong turns, here and there, that would ultimately have made the route more memorable).

If you're unsure of which scenes move your story forward, try this: map out each scene and attach a note to each one describing the purpose of the scene. If you can't think of a purpose - or if it's something that could easily happen in a different, more important scene - cut the scene.

This is a small part of writing more concisely, which I plan to post more about in upcoming weeks.

♥ me


  1. This was fantastic, Sara! I printed it and put it in my writing book to remind me to do everything you recommend! Awesome post. ;-)

  2. Excellent! I'll take all the advice I can get as I edit over the next few weeks. Brilliant piece of advice. Hardest part? Determining what's importart. I find some scenes moving that my husband sort of glazed over in my first manuscript. So...must read with a critical eye, I guess (and rely on CPs and beta readers to help me out!)

  3. Great post! Oh so true! I just had to cut one of those doctor scenes last night, though it took place in a dining hall--naturally you'd think in the morning my MC would want breakfast, right? So did I, but apprently, no one cares---now when she encounters someone in the dining hall, then its interesting-hehehe. Felt good chopping that mini scene out though.

  4. Very helpful post. I think we writers sometimes forget that we're telling a story, and start writing every little detail of our "babies" lives. This is definitely something I'll need to remember while I'm writing, and of course, while editing. Thanks Sara!

  5. But... but... but... You mean I can't keep that scene where I've described in minute detail wonderful flavors and aromas of breakfast at the MC's house where the kids are all eating Captain Crunch and the MC's having a bagel with lox and his wife's having a diet shake and stuff? Something significant does happen! They all have to eat, or they'd die, like, six pages into the story! That's important, innit?

    Or, um, not. :)

    Thanks for the reminder, good lady. Good idea with reading your scenes and annotating them with their purpose. I'll have to keep that in mind.

  6. I like the map idea! Will try it this weekend as I dive back into editing. Thanks!

  7. Awesome advice! In fact, at USC, we were taught that if we didn't have 5 reasons to keep a scene (and no, none of them could be "I like it") it had to go. It was brutal--but it does help you to keep your plot really tight. Only problem, it makes it REALLY hard to know where to cut because I really do have at least five reasons for all my scenes, and I'm still too long. Le Sigh.

  8. Another wonderful post! I'll have to remember this when I finally get to editing (one day...). Oh, I do have a cut scene file. Since I have a bad tendency to edit as I go, I've already weeded out some scenes, but I couldn't bear to just delete them. So into the cut file they went.

  9. This is the first thing I did when I decided to try to shape up an ms I'd written for fun. My scissors were quite dull by the end :)

  10. I needed this. I am the weak link when it comes to writing scenes we don't necessarily need. Lisa is the queen of adding actual action. So kill me, I love the details! But...I guess we need both :)

    And I love the idea of saving the deleted scenes. This will make it much easier to part with them. Thanks for the post!

  11. Wonderful Sara! Great post!

    btw you have around 6 songs in your playlist that are also on my WIP playlist... great minds ;o)

    Oh yeah, I have not seen an email from you yet! Just pop me one when you can.

  12. A deleted stuff file! *slaps forhead* How did I not think of that? I started editing, shaving, slashing, massacring my MS weeks ago and just clicking save as I go. I had my friend keep the original draft for comparative purposes but I never thought to just take the deleted stuff and PUT IT SOMEWHERE.

    Great post, thank you!

  13. This is totally brilliant advice! I have had to slice a few chapters from The Mockingbirds for this very reason! I believe in being ruthless with words. Thanks also for reading my article on branding on Lisa and Laura's site. I'm glad it felt doable!


Yay! I love when you have things to add :)