Wednesday, February 05, 2020

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

revision, cutting scenes, editing, deleting scenes
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 and decide the fate of a scene that isn't pulling its weight. 

I've been deep in a revision for a few months now, looking at each scene with a critical eye. Is it advancing the plot or story? Is it serving the story in any way? Is it a scene that should stay, or do I need to kill it?

I've been lucky so far, and most of the scenes are indeed doing their jobs, but I have had to kill a few that weren't. It's always hard, because there's usually something in that scene I liked, otherwise it never would have made it this far.

But cutting dead scenes from a manuscript improves the novel as a whole. It's just not always easy to know if we should.

To be clear, I'm talking about problem scenes, not scenes you know are working.

Let's look at ways to tell if a problem scene has gotta go:

The first thing to ask is: If I cut this scene, would anyone but me care or even notice?

If the answer is no, cut the scene. Sometimes it's easy, other times it's like ripping off a body part--especially if it's a scene you love, but it no longer (or never did) serves a purpose.

If deleting it hurts, go ahead and move it to a new file called "cut scenes" and save in case you need it later. That way you still have it, but it's no longer gunking up the manuscript.

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.

If the answer is maybe...

These are the tricky scenes. The scene itself isn't working, but you're sure if you cut it, the novel will suffer. But you just can't seem to get it to work.

revision, cutting scenes, editing, deleting scenes

Try pinpointing why this scene would be missed, and write it down. 

There's a good chance there's a vital bit of information in that scene that's needed, even if nothing else is. Cut and paste that important bit into a new file so you know what you're trying to salvage.

If you're just not sure, go line by line and ask, "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--you'll find another home for it in a minute.

Most often, the things on this list are:
  • A well-written line you love.
  • A bit of character history or motivation you 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 you want to save:

If it's a well-written line, you probably have to cut it. 

revision, cutting scenes, editing, deleting scenes
Be ruthless. Kill scenes that don't work.
I know, you 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.

Sometimes you can find another place for it, but inmost cases, cutting it--and the scene--makes the novel stronger.

(Here's more on No Pain, No Gain: Killing Your Darlings)

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 the text a little to make it 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 protagonist'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?
(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

If it's something that was once important, determine if it's still important or not.

I call bits like this "revision smudge," because they're bits of text that used to matter, but the reason why was edited out so they no longer do.
  • 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?
Finding revision smudge can be a challenge, because our minds think the text works. We remember why it needed to be there. The easiest way to find and remove these leftover bits of text, is to read the novel start to finish in one or two sittings. It's much easier to spot continuity errors that way.

(Here's more on Improving Your Writing Without Raising Your Word Count)

If it's description or world building, look for other places it can go.

World building or setting details can almost always go somewhere else, and the ones that can't usually don't need to be there in the first place (otherwise the scene would be working).
  • Does it evoke a certain mood that you can use to enhance another scene? 
  • Is there a perfect spot where the world building detail can be illustrated and not explained? 
  • Is there a better place to show it if it is indeed shown well?
(Here's more on How to Write Description Without Going Overboard)

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.

Be ruthless, the story will be better for it.

And for more tips on bringing a dead scene back to life, here's part two.

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?

*Originally published August 2010. Last update February 2020.

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

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Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.