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 one...is 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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