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Monday, July 16

When Less is More: Taking Away Elements to Fix a Problem Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A few weeks ago I talked about killing off characters, and that earned me this delightful tweet from @rlbelliston:
@Janice_Hardy Haha. I have a writing friend who, every time I get stuck on a scene, tells me to just kill someone off.
A funny off-the-cuff statement? Maybe, but there's truth in these words as well. Because sometimes looking at who you can get rid of is the perfect way to fix a scene that's not working.

You don't have to actually kill them, but look at the scene and decide if everyone in it needs to be there. What might happen if:
  • One of the players wasn't there?
  • Someone left in the middle?
  • The protagonist was alone?
  • The protagonist was with different people?
  • The protagonist was with people who didn't like her?

And if the protagonist in the scene in question happens to be alone anyway, don't let that stop you from getting rid of people. Your protagonist might be thinking about other characters. What if...
  • You took those thoughts away?
  • You cut the scene that triggers those thoughts?

Why stop with people? Characters rely on all kinds of things to get them through a scene. What else might you take away from them?
  • Can they forget something they currently remember?
  • Can they lose something they use/need in that scene?
  • Can they not discover some bit of information?

Taking things away from your protagonist forces you (and them) to re-evaluate the scene and what's available to solve the scene problem. It might turn out that nothing can be taken away (and that's fine), but you might discover less really is more and send the scene in a new direction.

Do you ever take things away from your protagonist? Are there any scenes you're currently working on that might benefit from losing something in it?


  1. What an interesting concept. I usually add more elements when a scene is stalled. It honestly never occurred to me that removing thigns could work as a catalyst. Thank you, Janice.

  2. Oh, yeah. I do this often. It's fairly normal for me to know a scene's wrong and to be stuck with it until I approach it from the perspective:

    • Who or what seems to be sending the scene off-course?
    • Who and what has to be there?
    • Who and what is optional?
    • Who and what is utterly unnecessary?

    Notice the "seems" in that first question. It's not unusual answers to both the first and last questions be enough to fix a scene, though I can think of one right now that I'll be revising soon, wherein I'll probably need to dispose of some optional components, too, just to make the scene manageable.

    I ask the "who and what" questions because sometimes, I'll run into a situation wherein one of the "needs" is "a villain", while the specific villainous character is what's screwing up a scene. So then I have to ask "Who else could be in this scene instead?"

    All that to say, this is quite a handy concept! Not necessarily intuitive, but useful. :)

  3. I've cut whole scenes before that weren't really necessary but not tried this for a scene not working. I'll have to try it when I get stuck next time. Thanks for the suggestions.

  4. My 'go-to' question is "WHY?" Once I know why a character is doing something, or why the scene is necessary, I can usually whittle down the excess. Too many times, I find the answer is, "because this is such brilliant prose/dialogue" which definitely means it needs to go.

    Terry's Place

  5. My poor protagonist... I take so many things away from him as it is. I'm not sure he'd survive me taking anything more away from him.

    -- Jo Eberhardt

  6. I usually just cut a whole scene it it's not working. Next time I will try your tips!

  7. I must admit I went through a phase where I added a fight scene (physical or verbal) if my story started to drag. But I outline now, so the problem doesn't come up.
    Thanks for the great post!

  8. I've been giving thought to this over the last few days. I tend to overcomplicate my longer fiction, possibly as a result of running too short. Everyone always said things like "Just add more story!" or "Just add more description." But I tend to add a lot of junk. Doesn't look like junk, and isn't anything that is typical of what writers overwrite (meaning reading craft books is unhelpful). So in my revision, I'm identifying three important things in the scene and anything else needs to be evaluated.

  9. Jo, most welcome. Adding is my first reaction, too, but I've noticed plenty of times when I get sick of it and just get rid of the stuff that's giving me a problem, hehe. Works more often than not.

    Carradee, great questions, even if the scene IS working. Very useful indeed. Thanks!

    Natalie, most welcome. Sometimes cutting the whole scene is best, but it's nice to have options.

    Terry, "why" is my editor's favorite question too, and I learned that "because I said so" doesn't work either :)

    Jo E, LOL I know that feeling.

    Amanda, that's often the way to fix it, sometimes there's something there we really want to keep. Just one more tool for the toolbox.

    Lexa, outlines stop a lot of problems before they happen. I've heard somewhere throwing in a man with a gun works too (one of those classic author guys said it but I forget who right now)

    Linda, I think I get what you mean. It's all good story stuff, but it winds up being too much and "junky" and doesn't serve the story. I've found things get junky like that when I have too many goals in one scene. Even if the main goal is to do X, but I try to slip in other concerns to layer it up and "add more story" as they say. (just killed a lot of a chapter for that reason yesterday). Looking at my narrative focus helps here. What am I trying to do/show/say. Then add in only the things that help/complicate/add tension to that.

  10. Wow, there is a lot of good advice here. I will definitely try to remember it all so I can try the things out. Thanks Janice and everyone who commented.