How to Decide What Goes in Your Scene

Very often I see new writers who can write exciting prose on a line-by-line basis, but when I start reading their stories, I soon discover that the story itself is weak, and that the author just has too much going on in the scene.

The author’s descriptions may wander, so that the story loses tension, or perhaps the author gets sidetracked with some mundane details.

Let me give you an example. Suppose that you’re writing a thriller, and you have your protagonist entering a hospital in order to question a victim of a shooting. Now, since you happen to work in a hospital, you might feel tempted to talk about the latest fads in hospital gowns. Heck, you could even go hog-wild and tell the reader the history of hospital gowns.

But when you’re done, does that beautifully crafted three pages of prose really accomplish anything? Does it move the story forward? Does it make it better? Not really, or not enough to justify its inclusion in the scene. Instead, it comes off as frivolous, a waste of time.

So the question becomes, how do you decide whether an incident or an idea fits into your novel?

Thirty years ago, I heard a humor writer say that he had a rule of thumb. While counting off three fingers, he said, “If the prose deepens the character, advances the plot, or is funny, then it goes in.”

His ideas seemed reasonable. If the story isn’t expanding the character or deepening the plot, we as readers will soon recognize that the author is wandering. But funny sounded good also.

Now let’s move forward five years. In one of my writing classes in college, an internationally acclaimed poet and short story writer Leslie Norris gave a slightly different assessment of how he decided whether to include a line in a scene. Counting off on his fingers, he said, “If the prose deepens the character, advances the plot, or is so exquisite that it excites us and reinvents the language, then the line goes in.”

Do you see the difference? For literary writing, he had a slightly altered view of what he wanted to include. I’d like to note that as he talked, he said that as writers, we should be able to justify every line, every word that we put into a story. He wasn’t saying that the line had to be necessary or vital, only that as artists we needed to understand why we wanted to include it.

Let’s move forward now another fifteen years. At a Romance Writers of America convention, one prominent romance writer suggested, “If the prose deepens the character, advances the plot, or arouses romantic or sensual feelings, then it goes into my story.”

Hunh. She recognized that she was trying to cater to her audience, that they were seeking the reward of experiencing a specific emotion. In fact, she knew exactly what her paying customers were paying her for.

And then last month, I was listening to fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who said, “If the prose deepens the character, advances the plot, or enlarges the world, then I put it in.” He went on to add, “I look at the idea, and I ask myself, ‘Is this cool? Does it pass my coolness test? Does it arouse a sense of wonder or awe?’ If it does, then I try to figure out how to work it into my text.”

This makes perfect sense. Science fiction and fantasy are called “wonder fiction,” and so he’s trying to arouse a profound sense of wonder. More importantly, Brandon is what I call a “world-creation” writer, a writer who loves creating alternate worlds, and he might well be the best in the field at this right now.

But do you see the pattern? Depending upon the genre that you’re writing in, you will of course be trying to arouse different “controlling emotions.” If you’re writing a thriller, then an incident that gets the reader’s heart pounding can earn its way into your tale. If you’re writing nostalgia, then you might search for elements that might seem wistful.

Just about any detail that arouses powerful emotions can be justified for inclusion in a tale. In fact, in any piece of fiction, you might find that you’re trying to arouse multiple emotions. For example, as you’re trying to create tension in the opening of a story, you might seek to add something that arouses horror, while later on, as you try to reduce the tension, you add humor, and so on.

A wise writer recognizes that readers come to a genre in hopes of arousing specific emotions. That’s what they’re paying for. So as you consider whether a detail, a description, an incident, or a bit of dialog be added to your story line, just ask yourself this: Does it deepen my character? Does it advance the plot? Does it arouse a desirable emotion for this scene?

If the answer to any one of these questions is yes, the idea is a keeper.


Editing Services

Hi everyone! Dave’s long-time assistant, Kami, here. Recently Dave suggested I plug my own editing services into his newsletter, and I figured that was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Some of you may be familiar with me from working with Dave, and I have been editing through him (and for him) several years now, and may have edited some of your stories. I now have a website that I do freelance editing out of, https://www.fawkesediting.com/ –under my more well-known online alias 😉

So if you are interested in having me edit for you, you can find all the important information there. Right now I am booked until mid-June, with a couple of people looking at that slot. I could go on and tell you about my credentials and training, but honestly, you can just read that here: https://www.fawkesediting.com/bio

Thanks! And if you think you might want my services in the future, bookmark that website.

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