Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Weeding Out Weak Scenes

by Jill Williamson

Every scene in your novel should have a purpose. This I've always known, but at a writers' conference this past summer, Nancy Kress taught us that there are three reasons for a scene:

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?

21 comments:

  1. Oh, I'm sure I have scenes that need rewriting and cutting. I'm writing plenty of junk at the moment...but it's the first draft. And it's okay (so glad I've finally drummed that into myself). I'll do the cutting and reworking later.

    Thanks for the post! Very helpful as always!

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    1. O.O Oops. That looked so weird. Let's try this again...

      Oh, I'm sure I have scenes that need rewriting and cutting. I'm writing plenty of junk at the moment...but it's the first draft. And it's okay (so glad I've finally drummed that into myself). I'll do the cutting and reworking later.

      Thanks for the post! Very helpful as always!

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    2. Very true, Amanda. This is an editing tip. :-)
      Get that rough draft done!

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  2. I had to delete a few scenes from my novel once I wrote the first draft. One of them was a scene I really wanted to include because it was really funny, but I realized that it didn't develop characters or push the story forward. So instead I saved the scene to another document and might use it in another book.

    Thanks for sharing these tips, Jill!

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    1. That's a good idea, Tessa. I've done that too. Even with sentences I really liked. (Just did it last night.) And one of my favorite scenes got cut, so I put it on my website as a free download.

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  3. Yikes. I have a million, seriously. Once, out of desperation, I wrote about my MC's little sister going to a Justin Bieber concert. *Sigh*

    Piper♥

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    1. LOL! Piper. Now you simply need to find a way to tie your plot to the Bieber concert. Depends on your genre, I suppose. I recently watched Men in Black 3. Could be that Bieber is an alien. O-o

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  4. This is good to know, thanks! I've been wondering about one scene of mine in particular. I couldn't decide if it was necessary or not, but it was one of my favorites. After reading this, I think it does do a little of all three things (mainly the first two), and I think I can revise it so those things come out even more strongly. So...yay! Now I won't have to ceremoniously remove it from my manuscript and be all sad about it.

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    1. Whoo hoo! Congrats, Anna! Glad you get to keep it. :-)

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  5. It seems pretty daunting to go through my whole WIP for scenes, but I'm sure it will make everything stronger! I'll have to devote some time to this after finals. Great post Jill!

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    1. Yes. It is daunting. Sometimes the editing process is. *sigh*

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  6. Yikes... I have a lot of work to do on that, as well. Thanks for the post! I look forward to your post on backstory. ;D

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  7. I think I have 2 scenes in my book that ONLY deepen the characters. The rest seem to advance the plot in some way as well. :) But yes, I'm very much looking forward to a post on backstory. It's a killer trying not to info dump when writing fantasy.

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    1. Good job, Cait! Yes, it is so tempting to do that in a fantasy novel. Resist! Help is on the way. ;-)

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  8. Oh the timing for this can't be more perfect! Defiantly going to break down the basics of some scenes to see if they need to be improved or just cut all together (I hope they don't need to be cut, I've grown to love the story as it is, but I'm always open to deepening it instead!)

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    1. Glad it was helpful, Mandi. If you have room to deepen each scene (meaning your book won't get way too long) then go for it!

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  9. Oh,this is very helpful. I've got to do this soon, as I will be editing my first draft in about two weeks. What exactly constitutes a scene?

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    1. Different people would likely answer that differently, but I'd say that a scene is an event that happens in a story within a unit of time. So when you switch to a new location or point of view, you've ended your scene. Or if a large amount of time has passed, you've transitioned into a new scene. And each scene should have a goal, beginning, middle, and end.

      And if you can't manage to break down your novel into exact scenes, don't freak out. I remember early in my writing career, trying to do this, and I got really frustrated. But if there are places in your book that seem really slow, this could be why. So see if you can test that part for a plot goal and characterization.

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  10. Thanks Jill! This was very helpful! It really makes me think about what I have in my scenes.
    I'm excited for when you talk about backstory... I think I may be adding to much in at once... I'm not sure.

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    1. Yes, backstory can be tricky. :-)
      Glad it was helpful, Fire!

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