Guest post by K.M. Weiland
“Cut this scene. It doesn’t move the plot.”
That is my most frequent comment on manuscripts I edit for others. It causes most writers to groan. Not only am I telling you to cut your beloved scenes (perhaps even your favorite), but you’re left to figure out why these scenes are extraneous—and then either fix or replace them.
Bill Buchanan emailed me:
Could you tell me how to evaluate the relative value of any scene in my novel?
Sol Stein’s book On Writing says:
“…I found it desirable to set a standard. If any scene falls below that standard, out it goes. The process stops when the remaining scenes all seem to contribute strongly to the work as a whole.”
Stein didn’t describe his scene evaluation standard, so don’t worry if you don’t have an answer for this. If it was easy, Sol Stein would’ve explained it!
Fortunately, I do have an answer. Once you understand the twofold essence of a powerful scene, you will instinctively reject subpar scenes and replace them with memorable and powerful alternatives.
2 Questions You Must Ask About Every Scene
Be brutally honest with yourself. Some of your favorite scenes may deserve a resounding No to both questions. The good news is that you have not only identified a major way to improve your manuscript, but you have also opened a clear path to correcting the problems.
1. Is this scene pertinent to the plot?
Every scene should help you create a cohesive and resonant whole. Any scene—however fabulous in its own right—that does not contribute to the plot, theme, and character arc will prove discordant and distracting.
Does this scene move the plot? Every scene must create a sense of motion. It must change the story. If your characters have not moved closer to their respective goals by the end of the scene, you’re looking at a static tableau.
If you’re unsure, pretend you whacked the scene altogether. Would the story continue without a hitch? Might it be even faster-paced and more focused? Or would the loss leave readers confused?
Sometimes a scene can ace the above requirements and still not be the best for your story. Don’t write scenes that just scrape by. Write scenes that explode off the page, moving the plot by leaps and bounds, affecting not just one element of your story, but as many as possible.
Not every less-than-functional scene has to be deleted. Often, its worthwhile elements can be salvaged by folding them in with the best parts of another mediocre scene. The best parts of two can result in one dynamite scene.
2. Is this scene interesting?
It’s not enough for a scene to be functional. It must also be fascinating.
A scene can work on every level and still be one readers have read a hundred times before. What about this particular scene will make readers pay attention? Look for ways to pique curiosity and create conflict, that tension that keeps readers turning the pages.
One of the surest signs your readers will be bored is that you’re bored while writing. Force yourself to stop and consider why. If the events don’t excite you or challenge you, it’s probably because your characters are going nowhere. Passive characters result in boring scenes. Be sure your character has a scene goal, something to move toward in this scene—and then complicate his progress by introducing obstacles (conflict).
Think Outside the Box
Another frequent cause of boring scenes is a lack of character interaction. Instantly pep up any scene by giving your protagonist someone to talk to—and, preferably, disagree with.
Don’t settle for letting your characters follow the obvious path from Point A to Point B. What would be unexpected? What are your minor characters’ driving needs in this scene? What new setting could might ratchet up the conflict or offer resonant symbolism?
When readers look back on the stories they love the most, specific scenes come to their minds. Ask yourself these two crucial questions, and fill your book with as many amazing and memorable scenes as possible.