5 Ways to Know You’ve Got a Good Scene
Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”
I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.
Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.
The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.
So here is a list of things that you might consider when trying to judge if a scene is needed:
1. Do your characters do anything, or do they just think?
Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.
2. A character or a setting is introduced.
This can go, too. There’s nothing wrong with introducing a character or a setting, but you need to have something happen. Nobody wants to read ten pages about grandma’s kitchen, or get an info dump about the first seventy years of her life before she ever comes on stage. That’s all backstory. Yet when starting a tale, too often that’s exactly what we get. The author begins looking for a place to open, and decides to encapsulate the main character’s life up to this point.
3. Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes.
Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.
4. The scene happens in flashback.
In many cases, authors will try to drag in some ancient history that is relevant to the story, but the story doesn’t depend upon the reader knowing the information. The question becomes, did I really need it, or was it just window-dressing.
5. The action in the scene repeats something that has happened before.
For example, I’ve seen authors write a scene where Joe gets into a fight with his boss. We see Joe thinking about what he’s going to say. We then see a scene where he fights with the boss. We then see the boss repeating it from his view. We see Joe thinking about how it went. In other words, we’re shown the same fight from four different angles. In this case, the author is like a director trying to figure out how to film a scene from the best angle. He might try moving the camera a few times, but for the purpose of the story, it’s still only one scene that he needs.
When I was young, I would spend a great deal of time on a scene or a description, often to find that it just didn’t work as well as I wanted. I found that too often I was straightening the deck chairs on the Titanic.
A scene can only be justified in a few ways. Before you write a scene, ask yourself, does anything change in the course of this scene?
For example, does a character get new information that spurs him onto an unexpected course of action? An example of this might be: My CIA agent suspects that he is being followed, and takes steps to evade his pursuer—ultimately getting into a shootout. This kind of change hints of a new conflict that of course can be expanded upon.
Does the character change their mind about something?
For example, perhaps your character Sarah has always thought cowboys were a bit . . . silly. Then she meets Duke, and suddenly finds herself wanting to follow him home to Wyoming. That emotional change in her, once again, leads to an expanded story.
Sometimes when a character changes his/her mind, it’s not an emotional change but an intellectual change that occurs. For example, a character might be sold on the idea of taking out a new life insurance policy by his wife . . . never dreaming that she plans for him to die in the very near future.
All in all, the chances are excellent that if nothing changes in a scene, then it can be tossed away.
Never get emotionally attached to a scene. With each scene, as you consider details of characterization, character motivation, setting, and dialog, ask yourself, “What can I cut to good effect?” Get to the heart of the story.
David Brin is an American scientist and author of science fiction. He has won the Hugo, Locus, Campbell and Nebula Awards. His novel The Postman was adapted into a 1997 feature film starring Kevin Costner.
USA TODAY bestselling author, M.A. Rothman, is one of the most unlikely novelists you’ll ever meet. He’s an engineer first and foremost, with a background in the sciences, and somehow or another, this writing habit of his has turned into a bit more than just a run-of-the-mill hobby.