I once had to cut a major (and awesome) event from the end of a novel I was writing. This event was so important to me, the entire magic system developed from it, and a huge chunk of the book lead up to it. But after several months of struggling during revisions, I realized I had a problem.
That awesome event wasn't working with the novel I had written.
I knew I had to cut it, but I didn't, because it was, well, awesome. And I loved it. And I'd pictured this event in my mind so clearly I could feel it.
But it wasn't working.
I spent a few months trying to make it work before I accepted that it had to go. It really killed me to kill it, but I couldn't write the novel I knew it could be without cutting that particular event. Once it was gone, and I re-outlined the new ending, my revisions got back on track and the novel was much stronger.
Even if getting there felt like I was cutting off a body part.
How I Knew it Wasn't Working
The most obvious clues were my critique partners saying, "this ending feels like it's part of another book," and "I really don't care what happens in X." This event took place in a separate location from the bulk of the novel and happened to people the reader didn't know. Of course they wouldn't care.
(Here's more on making readers care)
The other clue was the way the rest of the novel kept heading in a different direction, and resolving that awesome event didn't resolve (without a lot of contrived plotting) the core conflict and main goals of the protagonists. And even with the contrivances it was iffy.
The last clue was my own instinct. I knew it. I could feel it.
Clues You Might Need to Cut a Critical Event From Your Novel
1. Your writer's instinct says so.
We often know (even if we don't want to admit it) when something isn't working. This is a different feeling than those "is this working?" doubts we all get from time to time. Being unsure of a project is normal, but that keep-you-up-at-night dread that it's just plan wrong? Odds are your instinct is on target. Trust yourself.
2. You're doing plot gymnastics to make it all work.
Plot events should flow from one to the next. Things should feel inevitable, not forced. If you're banging your head on the keyboard to fit the pieces together, that's not a good sign. Sometimes we get the best plots from trying to make two ends meets, but if your working too hard to make it work, it's probably not working.
3. The reasons to arrive at that event aren't plausible.
Characters should have strong motivations and reasons to do what they do in a novel, and if those reasons are weak, the novel will likely feel weak. If you can ask one or two questions why and the whole thing falls apart, you're probably on shaky ground. Same as when you answer those questions with "because that has to happen for X to happen."
4. Resolving that event leaves a lot of loose ends for the story.
This is especially true if the event is in the third act of your novel, or the climax. This loose end feeling usually happens because the event is not connected or integral to the rest of the story. It feels like a major part of the book, but it doesn't resolve the things the characters need fixing. It's not driving plot in any way, it feels more tacked on.
5. No real stakes for that event.
Odds are there are stakes, but they're likely to be the large, yet vague "lots of lives will be lost" type. On first glance they seem high, but the reader (and often the characters) don't care if it happens or not. They're not invested in it. It's not personal to the protagonist. If this event can happen and things really don't change one way or the other for the main characters, you might want to take another look at your stakes here.
(Here's more on what to do when plots go astray)
What You Can Do When a Major Event Needs to Go
1. Cut it.
It'll be hard, but the story will be the better for it. Allow yourself to follow where you plot naturally leads. Save the original scene(s) in another file to make the cutting easier.
2. Move it.
While this wasn't an answer for my event, sometimes moving an event to another part of the story can give it new perspective. It might work better as a trigger to another part of the plot than as a result of one.
3. Change who's in it.
The same event might work better if it happens to/with different characters or people.
(Here's more on crafting better plots)
Realizing there's a fundamental flaw in your plot is never fun, but if you look at it objectively, you can usually find the answer and fix the problem. Even if that's banging on the delete key in a big way.
Have you ever cut a major plot point because it wasn't working? How did you handle it?
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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