Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 40: Unnecessary Scenes
What is a story but scenes? Put one scene after another–and you have a story! Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Those scenes have to hang together in a way that makes sense. They have to create a contiguous arc. Every one of those scenes needs to be integral to that arc. If a scene isn’t integral, then it doesn’t belong in the story. As we’re going to find out in this one of our common writing mistakes, it’s just as simple as that.
And just as hard. Because sometimes writers can’t see the forest for the trees. When you’re writing along, creating as you go, it can be difficult to realize when you’ve just written a scene that doesn’t matter to your story. It can be even harder when you’ve written a scene you know isn’t 100% essential, but you can’t bear to cut it because it’s so darn fun! Surely, a scene like that can get a free pass and stay in the story. What’s it going hurt, right? Turns out it might hurt your entire book.
4 Types of Unnecessary Scenes
Compared to movies, plays, and short stories, books are sprawling beasts. That means they can’t help but be a little “looser” than their more uptight media pals. The good news in that revelation is that the sheer bigness of novels gives writers a little more room for error. If you write one little extraneous scene, it’s probably not going to kill your book.
But the bad news is that all this sprawl means it’s much easier for us to fail to identify the unnecessary scenes, especially since we’re so close to (and un-objective about) our stories. Ultimately, the type of scenes that are unnecessary to your story will be completely unique depending on your characters and your plot. But here are four types of scene that are frequent culprits:
1. Minor Character Relationships
Minor characters often turn out to be some of the most fun people to to write in any story. It can be tempting to explore them in ways that aren’t actually necessary in moving the plot forward. This isn’t to say minor character relationships (both with the protagonist and amongst themselves) aren’t often important, necessary, and awesome ways to layer the plot and the themes. But they also can run away with us when we’re not looking. I find this to be especially true of romantic relationships. If you’ve got a flirtation budding between minors–or between the protag and a minor character, look at it extra hard to make sure it’s important and not just something you’re having fun with.
2. Point-A-to-Point-B Filler
Whenever you switch settings or jump time in your story, you’re usually going to have to account for what happened between Point A and Point B, if only to avoid disorienting readers. But don’t get sucked into dramatizing (showing)actions that don’t actually matter to the story. Your character’s time riding the subway to Grandma’s house doesn’t need to be dramatized. Chances are, it may not even need to be referenced. Although novels inevitably doneed to fill in more blanks than movies, novelists can take some lessons from screenplays, which usually cut between settings and time gaps without any explanation. Readers catch on faster you think.
3. Old Ground Re-Covered
Avoid repetition like the Ebola virus. You will hardly ever need to dramatize a conversation in which characters repeat themselves or recount events the readers have already witnessed. Court scenes, newspaper interviews, reports to superiors, and even just conversations with previously absent characters are frequent culprits.
4. Research Dumps
A while back, I read a novel in which the main character was selling a coin collection. The coins themselves weren’t particularly pertinent to the plot, and yet scene after scene focused on the details of the coin-buying business. Every single one of these scenes could have been cut without affecting the plot. There’s nothing wrong with using information like this to bring color and realism to a scene, but the scene itself should never be about the information–unless, of course, it’s actually driving the plot.
What Unnessary Scenes Do to Your Story
Before we identify a few important tricks for actually discovering all this deadweight in your story, let’s first consider why you should even bother tracking down these sneaky little freeloaders.
Unnecessary scenes will…
1. Bore Readers
Readers are laser-focused. Unlike us, they aren’t automatically in love with this story. They don’t want to watch these characters read from the phone book. They don’t want to read about stuff that doesn’t matter. They want the good stuff, and they want it right now. When your characters spend scene after scene talking about their coin collections, readers are likely to start skipping ahead.
2. Mislead Readers
Unlike you, readers don’t know where your story is headed. In some instances, they won’t be bored by your unnecessary scenes because they don’t know what they’re reading is unnecessary. They’re reading all this with intent fascination, storing away the information because they believe it will all turn out to be important later on. When the foreshadowing doesn’t pan out, they’re going to be left confused (and probably mad) because they’re still holding onto clues that really weren’t clues at all.
3. Derail the Plot
Let’s say you’re writing a political thriller, but you find yourself writing scene after scene about your protagonist’s crush on a reporter. That could work out just ducky, especially if the reporter turns out to be a key player in averting the political assassination at the heart of your story. But if she’s just a sideline character who never does much to affect the actual plot, then her role in the story is not only misleading readers, it’s also derailing the plot’s focus. Is this a political thriller or a romance? Readers won’t know, because neither do you.
4. Fragment the Story
The best stories are cohesive wholes. All their parts hang together in a way that makes perfect sense. When a story contains unnecessary scenes, those scenes are going to stick out from the rest of the story like pulled threads in a tapestry. It ruins the overall effect and may destroy whatever cohesion is maintained by the parts that actually are necessary.
3 Ways to Double-Check That All Your Scenes Matter to Your Story
Okay, sure, got it: unnecessary scenes are bad. But how can you definitively identify and eliminate these little stinkers? The first step is to go through your manuscript scene by scene and deliberately analyse each of them. You have to do this consciously. It’s not enough just to put this information in the back of your head and wait until a problematic scene jumps out you. You must look at each scene in turn and double-check its necessity to the story.
1. Mentally Delete the Scene
Take a look at each scene and visualize your manuscript without it. If you deleted this entire scene, what would happen to the rest of the story? Would the plot progression still make sense? Would the characters’ development be cohesive? Would the characters’ relationships still evolve naturally? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then stop visualizing the deletion and actually do it. If there’s only one or two important elements in a scene, then consider how you might sow these elements into more intrinsic scenes, so you can go ahead and delete this one.
2. Sweep for Darlings
Very often, unnecessary scenes wangle their way into our stories just because there’s something about them that we adore. In short, they’re our “darlings.” Look through your story, scene by scene, and evaluate how much you love each one. The more you love it, the more you should scrutinize it to make sure your own emotions aren’t getting in the way of your logical evaluation. Ask yourself the same questions as in the previous step. If the story can survive without any particular darling, get ruthless with yourself and chop it.
3. Check the Scene Structure
Finally, the single best way to identify an unnecessary scene is to pay attention to your scene structure. When a story is working properly, with no extraneous parts, every single scene will build into the next scene. Remember scenes are broken into two parts: action (scene) and reaction (sequel). Each of these is, in turn, made up of three more parts:
Whenever a scene is missing one of these parts, you know something is amiss. For the complete primer on scene structure, check out my book Structuring Your Novel.
Take a look at your novel. Look past the surface and dig down to the nitty-gritty of the scene level. Whenever you find a loose end, follow it to its source and ruthlessly cut it out. Do this consistently and you will create a solid novel with no unnecessary scenes. Readers won’t be able to look away!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion: Have you had to cut any unnecessary scenes from your story lately? How did you know they were unnecessary? Leave a comment!