Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 54: Story Events That Don’t Move the Plot
One of your chief jobs as a writer is to come up with story events—stuff that happens in your story. Coming up with these exciting elements is likely why you started writing in the first place. Like C.S. Lewis, you were zapped with the electrifying image of a faun carrying packages and an umbrella through the snow—and you thought, Hmm, that’s interesting, let’s see what’s happening here. A story is born! Unfortunately, so is the potential for random story events that fail to move your plot.
In their haste to make sure something happens in their stories, authors can sometimes end up including events for a number of faulty reasons. The result is a story that digresses from its true focus—often in ways that try readers’ patience.
This is an easy writing mistake to fall into, especially since authors sometimes don’t even realize the story events they’re creating don’t matter to the plot. But once you understand what to look for, you can find and fix even the most extraneous of story events before they derail your book.
3 Reasons You Might Accidentally Write an Extraneous Story Event
What defines an extraneous story event? Easy: it’s a scene that neither moves the plot nor evolves the character. Something does indeed happen within the story, but it doesn’t change the story. You could yank it right now and the character’s journey wouldn’t change at all.
There are several reasons you might find yourself writing an extraneous story event.
1. You Need to Kill Time in the Story
Sometimes writers feel obliged to follow their characters through the progression of time: as they’re going about their daily routines on their way to work, journeying across country, or waiting for long periods. Perhaps you want to show the progression of time as the character endures a three-day layover during the holidays (if time drags for the character, why shouldn’t it drag for readers too, eh?).
Granted, there will be moments in some stories where this will be necessary. But generally, there is absolutely no good reason you can’t just skip all this, both for the sake of your readers’ sanity and for the sake of your story’s pacing. Remember: the scene break is one of the author’s most powerful weapons.
How Not to Kill Time in Your Story
Let’s say your cavalryman hero got his horse shot by Apaches and he has to slog through the desert to the nearest outpost in Tucson. The journey itself isn’t important to the story, but you feel you have to account for the time somehow. So—brilliant idea!—a rattlesnake attacks him one morning. You dramatize an entire scene of the hero’s waking up in his bedroll to find a horrible snake rattling at his ear, staring him down, threatening his very life… until, of course, he demonstrates his Old West savvy by wrestling the reptile into submission with his bare hands.
In short, there’s no reason for this scene to be in your story. Cut it, mercilessly. Don’t force readers to read through meaningless filler, however ostensibly exciting. Cut straight to the next morning when he staggers in through the gates of the fort with word of the Apache uprising.
How to Show the Progression of Time
For all the warnings against including scenes of your characters’ daily routines, there are always exceptions. But here’s the rule that always applies: never include passage-of-time filler unless it offers something to the story.
In The Robber Bride, the ever-brilliant Margaret Atwood opens with a lengthy scene of a main character’s morning routine. And by lengthy, we’re talking several chapters’ worth of wandering around her house, brushing her teeth, and finally going to work and getting set up for her day of teaching students. Nothing much happens, but in this character-driven story, every detail of the character’s morning routine says something important about her and sets the stage for the conflict to come.
This is most definitely not a technique that will work in most stories (or with a less deft authorial hand). When it does work, it works because it is not wasted words, but rather a conscious effort to make sure even the most seemingly mundane detail matters.
2. You Want to Include a Cool Scene Idea
For most of us, scene ideas come to us in random snippets. We get an idea for one scene, then another, and another. And then we have to figure out how to string them together. As a result, we can sometimes unwittingly end up including a cool scene just because it’s cool.
This is where the old adage about “killing your darlings”comes into play. Analyze every scene in your story—especially the ones you take for granted because you love them so much. Every single one needs to advance the plot. If it doesn’t, you must either tweak it so it bears its rightful burden of cause and effect within the overall plot—or you must ruthlessly chop it.
When Not to Include a Cool Scene
You’ve created a stunning magic system for your fantasy novel, and you want to give your itinerant protagonist an opportunity to show how proficient and awesome she is in using it. So you create an early scene in which she’s wandering through a meaningless village and decides to engage with a group of local toughs who are bullying a child. Rainbows spurt from her fingers, she glows like an angel, the toughs cower on their knees, and then the protagonist smiles and wends her way out of town.
Did she come off looking awesome?
Was the scene itself kinda cool?
Does it advance the plot?
Nope, it does not—not unless this encounter will lead to those same toughs or that same child seeking out the protagonist for Very Important Reasons later in the story.
Fortunately, if you really, really love this scene, the fix for keeping it is pretty easy: just make sure it does matter. Tweak your plot to create cause and effect, so that your awesome scene is a necessary domino in your overall line of plot events.
When to Include a Cool Scene
In Anton Myrer’s antiwar epic Once an Eagle, the protagonist begins his legendary career as a soldier in a heroic scene during World War I, in which he takes an enemy machine gun nest nearly single-handedly. For this, he is awarded the Medal of Honor. It’s a scene that firmly proves his “awesomeness.”
But if that were all the scene did, it wouldn’t belong in the story—Medal of Honor or no. Myrer knew this. He included the scene with the firm intent of making it matter to the story. It is a defining moment in the protagonist’s life that either directly or indirectly influences everything to come.
3. You Know Something’s Gotta Happen in This Scene
Another reason dead-end story events show up is because authors find themselves temporarily stuck. There you are, staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page. What happens next? Or perhaps you already know what happens next, but you’re just not quite sure how to get from the previous scene to the next one.
So you start typing, words come out, a scene happens. Problem solved, right? Maybe, but maybe not. Too often, in the worthy desire to make sure something is happening on the pages of your story, you can end up with a something that doesn’t actually deserve to happen.
Good scenes are more than just things happening for the sake of things happening. A good scene is one that is integral to the story on every level. If it isn’t, it’s the wrong scene.
How Not to Make Something Happen in Your Scene
Bad guys just got done shooting at your P.I. hero. Now what? Maybe he goes to talk to the head of Internal Affairs at the police department—who just happens to be an old flame. Shocked by the bullet graze on his face, she turns tender and patches him up. They talk, he tells her all about the case (stuff readers already know), then takes a tough-man swig from the bottle of Scotch hidden in her bottom drawer and heads back out to the streets.
This sounds like a totally reasonable progression of events. Why shouldn’t he take a breather while he gets himself patched up? The relationship aspect of the scene even sounds pretty interesting (ooooh, old flame!). But what actually happens in this scene?
You guessed it: nada. So they talk—so what? So she patches him up—big deal. So she gave him a drink—that was nice.
But did the plot get advanced?
As it stands, it did not. This was a total filler scene, designed simply to show something happening.
That kind of thing may work in real life. But not in fiction. In fiction, there always needs to be a diamond-hard pointburied within even the most seemingly random realism of a scene. If Ms. Internal Affairs gave him a new clue—or spiked his drink—or even just promised to go out with him again, then you’d have a scene that matters.
This is easily the most difficult type of unnecessary story event to spot, since it masquerades as an important part of the story’s flow. But beware of even seemingly integral scenes that do not, in fact, add anything new to your narrative drive.
How to Make Something Happen in Your Scene
In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic A Little Princess, she includes an entertaining scene in which the rich neighbor’s monkey jumps into the mistreated orphan protagonist’s freezing attic room. She helps the neighbor’s servant chase and corral the monkey, revealing to him that she grew up in his native India.
By itself, this is just a fun little scene, showing a random event in the protagonist’s life. But is it just a random event? Definitely not. Burnett uses this seemingly casual scene as a tremendously important catalyst within the plot, allowing the neighbor to become interested in the protagonist, bestow her with gifts, and eventually adopt her.
Within every scene is the possibility of something meaningful and entertaining. Evaluate each scene in your manuscript. What happens in each scene that advances the plot, the character development, or preferably both?
If you find scenes in which these necessaries are either missing outright or just flabby, ask yourself what you can do to strengthen them into meaningful segments that matter to the story.
And if you find there are no good ways to enhance these scenes, gird yourself to cut them ruthlessly. Your narrative will be the tighter for it, your characters will be more focused, and your readers will be much happier.