Sunday, April 20, 2014

Trimming the Fat (aka Expendable Scenes) in Your Novel

I don’t blame you if you don’t want to read this post. Revisions can be dreadful, overwhelming, confusing and frustrating for many writers and the idea of doing them (or reading about them) may sound as fun and exciting as standing in line at an airport security check point. But revisions have a strange quality, they can also be infinitely satisfying once you figure out what needs to be done and the end result is a stronger manuscript.

One of the reasons why revisions are so difficult is because you must tackle several elements at once: character development, plot progression, pace, prose (to include style, grammar and dialogue), among other monsters. Today, I’m going to focus on what constitutes the structure of your novel: scenes.

Since your novel is basically a sequence of scenes with transitional sentences/paragraphs/thoughts, it's essential to evaluate each and every one of them as both a unit and a part of a whole. My writer friends tease me because I’m ruthless with them (“If I were you, I would delete this scene” is my motto!) But there is a good reason for my callousness. More often than not, a pacing issue is the result of a scene—or several—that aren’t serving an important purpose in your novel. These “problem scenes” are difficult to spot because we often grow so attached to them. (Very often we need someone else to point them out.)  So how do we determine if a scene is important enough to keep or if it’s more problematic than useful?

Here are the five questions I ask myself when evaluating a scene.

1. Is the scene active or reflective?

Ideally, you should have a good balance between active and reflective scenes. Active scenes being the ones where something important happens (an action that moves the story forward), and reflective scenes are those where the character ponders on his situation, informs other characters of his problem or fills the reader with backstory and/or information dumps. In my experience, agents and editors often complain that novels are “too slow.” This problem may be the result of too many introspective scenes or instances where characters engage in ordinary activities. Arguably, you will need more active than reflective scenes to create a good progression, but the balance of active vs. reflective heavily depends on the genre you’re writing (though the consensus seems to be that even in literary fiction there must be enough action to keep the reader’s interest). In genres such as adventure and thrillers, most of your scenes should be active, but in Women’s Fiction, for example, it’s tolerated and even expected to have many introspective scenes to reflect the author’s voice and the character’s personality. Once you figure out if your scene is active or reflective, determine whether or not you have too many of one or the other. Perhaps you have too many reflective scenes in a row and the pace would benefit from moving them around (if it doesn’t affect your sequence of events, of course). The same goes for active scenes. Perhaps it’s time to give your character a coffee break from all the chaos surrounding him!

2. Is the scene repetitive?

Do you have similar scenes throughout your book? In other words, have you used the same setting many times before, have you had similar conversations or too many scenes between the same characters? Perhaps it’s just a matter of condensing two scenes together.

3. Is an entire scene necessary to convey this information?

Sometimes we hold on to a scene because we think that the information shared on a particular line of dialogue is vital but we don’t realize that an entire scene may not be necessary in order to divulge this one, tiny, bit of information. When I’ve recommended my friends to cut scenes that are dragging forever, I try to spot what is important about them and suggested they move this information elsewhere. But what about “show, don’t tell,” you may ask? As you know, “showing” (in this case, enacting a scene) is fundamental for a reader to identify with a character or situation, but not all events are equally interesting or deserve this much attention. It’s your job to determine which events are relevant enough to turn into a scene.

4. What purpose is this scene serving?

It’s important for a writer to understand why a scene deserves to take room in his or her novel. Is the scene in question advancing the story? Enlightening the reader about the character’s past or his quirky personality? Developing a bond or conflict between characters? If you don’t understand the purpose of a scene you’re holding on for dear life, you may have a problem.

5. If I remove this scene, will it affect the flow of my novel?

I may have told you that my first novel started as a telenovela for the Latin American market. As you know, soap operas have tons of characters and last A VERY LONG TIME. Therefore, writers have the luxury of penning what I call “peripheral scenes.” These are scenes where secondary characters catch up with the main action, or where the heroine ponders her decision with friends, or where a subplot between secondary characters develops (but does nothing for the main plot). When I translated my soap opera to English and formatted it as a novel, I had tons of scenes like these (no wonder my novel was over 143,000 words!) In novels, these scenes are sometimes hard to spot because they can be considered “bonding scenes” between characters. A good test is to evaluate if your novel will suffer if you remove a particular scene. From my experience, it probably won’t. Readers are smart and will catch up with the action without you having to over explain how things came to be. If you’re doubting the validity of a scene, you’re probably on to something.

In conclusion, the trick to revisions (especially if you’re going to do them on your own) is to be honest with yourself—which can be difficult considering your emotional attachment to your work. As a critique partner, I have noticed that many writers are very resistant to deleting superfluous scenes. (Sometimes they’re more willing to kill a character than a beloved scene!) I think it has to do with the fact that these scenes become familiar to us and it becomes harder to envision our novels without them. However, many times after the deed is done, writers realize how much better their novel flows and they don’t look back (it’s happened to me several times). It’s rare that after deleting a scene, a writer will bring it back (at least not in its entirety).

What do you think? Do you have an emotional attachment to your scenes or are you ruthless when it comes to evaluating (and getting rid of them)?


  1. I'm in the midst of revision now. I haven't deleted any full scenes yet, but there have been instances where a good chunk of a scene has been lopped off to quicken the pace. Mostly I find myself tightening sentences and getting rid of redundancies. I do love how much better the story reads when all that fluff comes out. :)

    1. Good luck with the rest of your revisions!

  2. Hmm...I can only guess who you might be talking about in this post...

    You have been a tremendous help in helping me see the extraneous scenes in my books. Especially this last time around! It is really hard to see if something is extraneous when you've been reading the same flippin' book through so many times. Honestly, for me anyway, the hardest part about writing has nothing to do with plotting or characters. It has everything to do with reading the same story through about a thousand times!

    1. "...the hardest part about writing has nothing to do with plotting or characters. It has everything to do with reading the same story through about a thousand times!"

      I totally understand. I'm going through exactly the same problem now. :( I find it lot easier to evaluate other people's scenes than my own!

  3. Ah, I really needed this right now and struggle with writing enough active scenes. Thank you for making such a helpful guide.

    1. She excels at writing helpful guides!

    2. @ Saumya: I'm glad this was helpful!!

  4. Man, this really is why critique partners are so helpful. You are good at spotting superfluous scenes; I have trouble seeing things in a scene-centric way. I tend to look at plot elements or character arc, but those can be really overwhelming to fix. Adding or removing a scene, or even just thinking in terms of scenes, is so much more manageable. (Although you truly need another set of eyes on the prize to catch inconsistencies or weird jumps that happen when you yank a full scene.)

    Showing vs telling ... as much as I rely on this advice (and dispense it!) it can be awfully damaging. In the sense that it inspires us to show every bloody element of the story, for fear of being told we're "telling." You *have* to tell sometimes, unless you want to wind up with a 500,000 word novel! The real trick is to know which vital elements must be shown, and how. Eesh, writing is hard. :/

    Great, practical advice here, Lorena!

    1. "You are good at spotting superfluous scenes"

      Except for MY OWN, ha!


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