Wednesday, January 11

Hey, Still With Me? Poking Dead Scenes With A Stick, Part One

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Revisions aren't for weaklings. They're hard, they take commitment, and sometimes you have to make the tough call. One such call is deciding the fate of a scene that isn't pulling its weight. It's not advancing the plot or story, and you know there's a problem with it. Do you cut it or try to save it? Today, let's look at those scenes that gotta go.

When you have a dead scene, ask yourself: If I cut this scene, would anyone but me care or even notice?

If the answer is no, cut the scene. Go ahead and move it to a new file called "cut scenes" and save in case you need it later if you'd like. Be ruthless, the story will be better for it.

If the answer is yes, then odds are there's something in the scene that either appeals to you (a darling) or conveys vital story information. Cutting the scene will cut that detail and cause problems to the overall story. Trouble is, the scene itself isn't working as a whole and causing problems anyway. So perhaps save the information, but cut the actual scene.

Try pinpointing why this scene would be missed, and write it down. Cut and paste those important bits into a new file if possible so you know exactly what you have and are trying to salvage. If you're just not sure, go line by line and think, "Can I cut this?" and cut everything where the answer is yes. It'll be choppy but that's okay. The goal is to save what's vital and find another home for it.

Most often, the things on this list are:
  • A well-written line we just love.
  • A bit of character history or motivation we think is cool or important to know.
  • Something that was once important to the plot, but no longer is.
  • A cool description or world building moment.

Now look at each item.

If it's a well-written line, you probably have to cut it. I know, we don't want to, but it's called "Killing Your Darlings" for a reason. Many a writer (myself included) has forced an entire scene just to get one kick-ass line in there. You know those movies and TV shows where there's a big buildup to a joke, and you think, "Wow, they really worked hard for that one." And then the joke isn't nearly as funny as all the work it took to get there. This is the writer's equivalent.

If it's a bit of history or motivation, look to see where else in the book this bit could go. You might have to tweak it a little to fit, but odds are it could easily slide into a scene that's already working. Look for similar context. If the history is about your protag's childhood, where else do they think about children or growing up? If it's a bad memory, are there any scenes where remembering this would make it harder for them to deal with what's happening? For motivation, where else are they acting based on this same motivation? Are there any spots that could be deepened if this bit was the motivating factor?

If it's something that was once important, determine if it's still important or not. Was this an idea you went with for a while, but a better one showed up three chapters later and you built the rest of the story on that? Can this idea be woven into something else? Are there any other places where this idea would deeper the conflict or stakes? And the hard this an idea you really like, but doesn't fit the story anymore?

If it's description or world-building, again, look for other places it can go. Does it evoke a certain mood that you can use to enhance another scene? Is there a perfect spot where the world-building info can be illustrated and not explained? Or a better place to show it if it is indeed shown well.

Some items on your list might need tweaking to fit elsewhere and that's okay. Sometimes, just breaking them down and looking for other places to put them is enough to make you realize what you have works fine, and it's just too much effort for too little gain to put those bits back in. Getting it out of the story makes you realize you don't need it at all.

Next Wednesday, we'll look at how to bring life back into dead scenes.

Are there any dead scenes in your current WIP? How ruthless are you with them? Is it easy to cut or hard to kill? What's keeping you from cutting a scene you fear (or know) isn't working?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I'm dealing with this problem right now. I'm working on a scene that could probably be cut, but it has three really cool things in it that are referred to further down the road and it gives a good reason for two characters' actions later in the story. Could I rearrange those things and find another reason for the characters' actions? Probably, but at the same time there is a lot about that scene that I love. There are probably other, more efficient ways to move the story along, but that scene is just FUN - and my BETA readers loved it too. So it leaves me wondering, is it always necessary to cut something that's not necessary? If the rest of the book is solid, would you ever just leave a scene like that in and say to yourself, well I'll see what an agent (or editor) says?

  2. There are no always in writing :) If you feel the scene makes the book better, keep it. Having a great story is what matters most, and if that scene helps do that, there's no reason to get rid of it.

  3. That's a good way to think about it. Thanks for your input. :)

  4. When I've had to do this in my urban fantasy WiP, my beta's told me the salvaged pieces actually fit better where I've ended up working them in than in the scenes I originally designed for them.

  5. Great post and very timely. I decided I need to cut 8000 words. I'm going through scenes to cut my darlings that don't move the plot along enough. I'm being brutal, but it needs to be done. BTW, your redundancy list helped me cut a lot of words in a prior revision. Hopefully this will be one of my last ones.

  6. Good luck with your revisions! I'm going to be going back to that post soon myself, LOL. Shifter 3 is coming in waaaaaay too long and I'll need to trim it back 10K I think.

  7. Timely. I'm rewriting the first act of my story and I'm wondering which scenes are really needed.

    One main problem is how to introduce characters. Another one is how to establish the narrator and the co-protagonist.

  8. This is a problem I'm facing with a scene in my novel. But it deals largely with motivation of characters. Part of me wants to cut the scene, because it feels so out of place with the rest of the novel, but I'm worried that doing so will cut some character tension between the MC and a newly-introduced antagonist, as well as make later references confusing.

    On one hand, I've considered doing what you've said: eliminating the scene and placing vital information elsewhere (and maybe having a couple paragraphs to give the gist of the scene, so it isn't totally missed).

    On the other hand, I'm considering trying to force it to pull double-duty, and give the MC more problems to deal with within the scene itself. Problem is, that'll raise word count where it needs to be lower, not higher.

    So yeah. My decision? Finish edits to the other chapters, then come back to it and reevaluate the scene as a whole.

  9. Revisions ARE hard. I'm always excited to get there at the end of a draft then about one day in, I'm always wondering what I was all excited about. This is where you have to be brave...and a little ruthless. I probably either throw out or rewrite a third of the scenes I've written because they either didn't do their job well enough or because they didn't hit the mark at all. I've started to realize that they needed to be written for me, not everyone else so I could get to the real story- my practice throws at the dart board if you will before I actually hit the bull's eye. And no one is interested in knowing how close you get to a target without actually hitting it if you are in fact capable of better accuracy.

  10. I had to do this last weekend with my WIP. I love the scene and the character it introduces (he's wonderfully wicked), but it's not really necessary for the story overall. I'm saving it, though, as you suggest. Maybe it'll work in another story sometime.

  11. I guess we've all faced this problem! One example that stands out in my mind is a scene that was very fun and funny. An evaluator for a publisher I submitted the MS to listed that scene as a specific example of a fun, funny, interesting scene.

    And I cut it.

    I cut it because it focused in the wrong place. The MS was romantic suspense and this scene was more toward the romance and kind of low tension. So I replaced it with a scene hitting on the suspense angle.

    I don't know how much of a difference that one scene made (it was one of dozens of similar changes I made), but when I resubmitted it to the same publisher, the MS was accepted!

    Oh, another thing that I look for to save when I'm cutting a scene: any clues or other foreshadowing. I can usually find another place to work in those things, but if I can't, sometimes the scene stays (trimmed down to just the right length to match—and mask—the significance of the clue).

    Great post!

  12. Thanks for these pointers! I'm always looking for ways to make editing less painful :D


  13. C0, character introduction is rough sometimes. Actually, I should do a post on that. (thanks for the idea) Look for it next week :)

    SBibb, sounds like a plan :) And you might find a spot later that needs groundwork, and that scene is perfect for it.

    Amy, I feel your pain. I go through a love/hate cycle with every book. It starts off feeling good, then I see all the holes and start my rewrites. I like revising, but there are moments where I feel the work will never get done. It always does though :) You gotta make yourself happy first.

    Heather, it just might. Or you might find a way to work it back in after revisions. Or, it can work as a great but of character work to provide the mental backstory for a scene, and deepen that character because you remember this scene when you write him. (did any of that make sense? lol)

    Jordan, grats! Great story. And good advice.

    Jen, happy to help!

  14. Such great advice. The thing to do is save those great bon mots and backstory bits to put in somewhere else. They may not even fit in this book. They may end up in a short story sometime. But pulling the scene and looking at the book without it can do so much for the flow of the novel, tough as it feels to do.

  15. Thanks for the advice and encouragement. It is painful to make revisions like this. To help motivate me, I keep a few books I've read that needed a good dose of editing but didn't get it. I recall the instances when I thought, "This did nothing for me," or "This chapter didn't accomplish anything," and then ask myself if I'm making the same mistakes.

  16. Anne, good tip. I keep several files for notes, saved scenes, world building, etc. That way I always have a spot to save something for later :)

    Heather, that's a great idea. The adage is you can learn just as much from a bad book as a good book, and you just provided a great reason why. That's one reason critiquing others is also helpful. Same thing happens there.