As writers, it’s very easy to get carried away with a scene, especially if it’s one we’ve put a lot of research into. Every detail seems important, right down to the type of plants in the garden and the color of paint on the walls.
Often these scenes are the once we’re most proud of, because we’ve managed to import all that painstaking research into a beautiful narrative.
But is all that information really necessary to the plot?
If you have to ask yourself that question, it’s probably not. I’ve got a scene like this right now that I’ve put on the backburner because I love it so much, and thinking about chopping it up is akin to cutting off my own arm.
It’s the antagonist’s POV, when the reader finds out what the traumatic event was in his life that made him the monster he is today. It’s a sad story will (hopefully) earn him empathy and make him a three dimensional villain.
But it’s also nine pages long (the rest of his scenes only have four pages at most) and over 3200 words. I’m proud of the chapter because it describes his childhood in an area of the country I’ve always been fascinated with, the Old South. It’s the perfect setting: a long abandoned plantation with a haunting description of the overgrown grounds and their history.
Most of which isn’t really necessary to the plot. Some, yes. Some ties into the visual effects and symbolism in the story. But much of it is simply me having fun with my imagination. It’s also one of my favorite scenes, and it kills me I’ll have to chop it up.
But it must be done, because if it doesn’t further the plot or characterization, it’s not necessary.
Here are the five criteria I use when trying to decide whether or not to cut all or part of a scene:
1) Is anyone beside me going to care?
I understand my story and so every word is essential to me. But if readers are going to be asking ‘what the hell does this have to do with anything,’ it’s got to go.
2)The truth is in the details
Is this scene full of mundane details? I tend to fall into the trap of wanting to explain everything, from the character’s movements, inner thoughts, and setting details. If that’s all a scene is, I’ll go back and cut it or merge with another.
3)Is there exposition in this scene? Does the character (protag or antag) end up somewhere different than they started?
If your character starts out the scene lost and angry and spends a lot of time contemplating her life, but is still lost, angry and unresolved at the end of the scene, something’s got to change. He/she has to move forward, or the reader is going to get bored and most likely sick of her whining without doing anything.
4)Did I say this already?
One of my early pitfalls as a writer was repeating myself with each character. If something happened in A’s pov, it must be discussed in B’s as well. That’s fine, if you’re revealing NEW details and moving the plot forward. But if you’re just rehashing old stuff, you’re bogging down the reader and offending them. Repeating information is like saying you don’t trust them to figure it out the first time.
5)How does it sound?
Read the scene aloud. Actually, start one scene before and read through both. Does it sound right? Is the flow from scene to scene correct? Or does your scene in question stick out like an off note in a symphony? If so, it needs work at the very least.
What are some of your own rules for deciding whether to cut?