by Jill Williamson
1. To advance the plot
2. To deepen characters
3. To fill in backstory
She also said that, ideally, every scene should do the first two (advance the plot and deepen the characters), and that backstory should be filled in rarely. I'm planning to talk about backstory next week, but today, I want to talk about examining your scenes for purpose and making the hard choice of rewriting them or cutting them altogether.
I'm still learning this the hard way. I often have too many scenes that do nothing but characterize. That's my excuse for keeping them. But scenes that accomplish more than one objective are much stronger. If you can make all your scenes characterize AND advance the plot, you'll be on your way to writing a book that your reader can't put down.
Try to look at each scene like it's a mini story. It needs its own beginning, middle, and end. It needs a goal. The point of view character needs a goal with logical motivation. The scene needs conflict. In his book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder says that you need to know the conflict in each scene and how that changes the emotional tone for your hero.
For example, here is the breakdown of a scene I wrote this morning.
POV character: Shaylinn
Scene goal: Shaylinn must spy on an an old friend (Kendall) and find out if Kendall has the letters.
Motivation: The rebel leader is going to kill Kendall if he can't prove she's innocent, so Shaylinn volunteers for the job with the intention of warning Kendall that she's in danger.
Conflict: Shaylinn is going to confront Kendall about Chord's death and the missing letters. There is an accusation involved, and things could get ugly.
Scene Beginning: Shaylinn confronts Kendall about the letters and warns her about the rebel leader's desire to have her killed if he doesn't get the letters back.
Scene Middle: Kendall confesses that she has the letters, but she explains to Shaylinn that she kept them because Chord made her promise to deliver them only to whom they were addressed.
Scene End: The girls decide to read the letters to see if they can learn why the rebel leader wants them so badly, and they discover a horrible secret.
Emotional tone: Shaylinn started the scene worried (negative emotion) that Kendall would be mad at her when she found out what Shaylinn wanted. But when the scene ends, Shaylinn is relieved (positive emotion) to know that Kendall is still the person she thought she was. Making that emotional tone clear at the beginning and end of each scene keeps your reader hooked.
So, take a hard look at the scenes in your book. Do they have a goal with a clear character motivation? Do they have conflict? Do they have a beginning, middle, and end? And does the scene change the emotional tone of your main character from a + to a - OR a - to a +?
What do you think? Do you have some scenes that need rewritten or cut?