17

Authors need to understand which scenes in their stories to cut in order to help the reader enjoy the story best.

Knowing what works for the reader and what does not is a key skill for authors. Because WSE is not a critique site, we do not post excerpts of our work for feedback.

I routinely hear that writers should cut anything the reader doesn't need, and that every scene must move the plot forward. But I also (all the time!) see scenes that I 'don't need.'

Here's one example of many:

In SW:A new hope, in the chess scene on the MF, the wookie wins 'because a droid won't rip your arms out if he loses.'

After 8 or more Star Wars installments, we still have never seen a wookie rip out anybody's arms. Even when they lose. They just moan a lot. So even the premise of what a wookie is, falls short.

Give me a little dismemberment. Otherwise this is an unfulfilled promise!

I'm sticking my flag in, right here - we don't need the scene. But I like the scene ... much as I like many of the scenes in my story.

Here's a second example, from "Hook."

Tinker bell grows big and then small again. Nothing is ever made of this. It creates sexual tension between Tink and Peter. Definitely not canon, and never used again in the story.

Again, I plant my flag. We do not need the scene.

So, the question is, how reliable is the advice: If the reader doesn't need it, cut it. If the scene doesn't progress the plot, cut it.

?? I ask because I've finished mapping my story to scene-sequel and am considering their individual value. Some are merely enjoyable scenes.

A useful answer will clarify what it means to 'move the plot' in a way necessary to the reader, and can use any example it likes. Do not feel constrained by the examples provided here.


Edit: Just learned that Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) had arms ripped out by Chewbacca. Scene was cut.

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/star-wars-the-force-awakens-deleted-scene-chewbacca-rips-arms-off-a7530976.html

  • What you seem to want is that we answer your question not in general but by interpreting Star Wars, which makes your question a question about Star Wars and not one about writing, so I vote to close this question as off topic. You'd better ask this on Literature.SE or SciFi.SE, I guess. – user29032 Mar 29 '18 at 19:45
  • 5
    @Cloudchaser No, I just wanted to provide a context. – DPT Mar 29 '18 at 19:50
  • Reformatting your question would really help. Your example detract from what you are asking. I will vote for close until that is done, but would be very willing to reopen. – JP Chapleau Mar 30 '18 at 13:58
12

The theory is bollocks. Here's why: the reader does not need any of it. A story is an entertainment. The reader needs food and water and oxygen and shelter and love. They don't need your novel.

Readers read for pleasure. Any scene that gives pleasure is a good scene.

However, a novel is a significant commitment. No other kind of art asks so much of the reader's time. Therefore the novel must provide a kind of pleasure that is both worth the time invested and can only be achieved with that kind of time commitment. In short, an novel must give novel pleasure as well a scene pleasure.

Novel pleasure comes (as best we understand it) from the emotional payoff of a story arc. The length of the novel is justified by the depth and/or complexity that can be delivered by a complex story arc. This is no doubt composed of many elements, including but not limited to the depth of our knowledge of and sympathy with the character, the emotional investment in their earlier triumphs and tragedies, and the profound nature of the the great moral choice that is the lynchpin of the story arc.

Scenes that conform to the emotional arc of the story, therefore, add to novel pleasure in addition to whatever scene pleasure they provide. (TV shows such as BTVS which combine an episode arc with a season arc are a good example of this.)

Scenes that detract from or delay the development of the story arc, however, can destroy novel pleasure, even if they offer considerable scene pleasure. Though usually we cannot enjoy the scene pleasure either if we feel that novel pleasure is slipping away. Story pleasure depends hugely on anticipation, and if anticipation does not build, or is diffused by a scene, then the loss of the sense of anticipation is more distressing than any pleasure the scene itself can compensate for. (Imagine being made to suck a super-sweet hard candy just before you were about to try a fine wine. Even if you like the candy, it will ruin your palate for the wine, and you will hate it for doing so.)

This distinction between scene that complement and build the novel arc and those that detract from it, however, cannot be made solely on the basis of utility. It is not about utility but about pleasure. Scenes that offer complementary or contributory pleasures are welcome. Scenes that offer conflicting or detracting pleasures are unwelcome, and their pleasures turn to ashes in the mouth.

  • :) I knew you would take care of the 'entertainment' angle and this is a big part of what I need - as I try to see where to cut. And where to enhance. Your sixth paragraph is very helpful indeed. – DPT Mar 29 '18 at 20:43
  • 1
    Theory: "If the reader doesn't need it, cut it." Need, means there is some reader requirement the scene fulfils. Which could be: pleasure. So, really the theory is spot on? Readers need pleasure to continue reading. Therefore a measurable metric is how pleasurable something is or how relevant to the arc, aka plot, is something. I don't think you've proved your supposition. The theory is not bullocks? – Kirk Mar 30 '18 at 12:33
  • @Kirk I think I stated the theory as 'needed to move the plot forward.' And, I am envisioning the plot (in the first of the two provided examples) as simply "The resistance works to and eventually does destroy the death star." All the dressing up that the scene provides goes to pleasure, but not to destroying the death star. The answers here clarify that 'need' (as you identify) may be more broad than plot. – DPT Mar 30 '18 at 15:55
  • @DPT, The plot is "A kid who learns to trust in the force saves the rebel alliance from destruction at the hands of the death star." Never forget Star Wars is the "Hero's Journey." Part of that is that Luke must accept his destiny. Rebels vs Imperium is the backdrop for why he needs to become a hero. The story is about why we care that he should become a hero. If becoming a hero is hard (we see failure), then we value it more. That goes directly to the plot. The scene is successful because it answers the reader's questions: why they should care about the characters, the result, the plot. – Kirk Mar 30 '18 at 16:03
  • Q to Mark, So I've just changed a scene 2/3 way through, so that a rabid dog is following / attacking our hero. Now instead of Hero going from point D to E easily (score of 3 on a scale of 1 - 10) he goes from point D to E with a challenge (score of 7). More tension. But - adding a rabid dog feels incredibly artificial. I added it to keep the tension high, get reader's heart racing, & I 'used' the addition to add another element of the 'magic system.' (he gets past the rabid dog with another variation of magic). We don't 'need' the rabid dog. Or, do we, because we need our heart to race? – DPT Mar 31 '18 at 1:19
13

The prevalent theory suggests that each scene must do one of two things: move the plot along, or offer characterization. To use your own words (or your quoted words):

In SW:A new hope, in the chess scene on the MF, the wookie wins 'because a droid won't rip your arms out if he loses.'

It's a cute scene, flavour, humour, ... and Luke is failing to master the force elsewhere in the room. We hear a line about the nature of the force.

So what you have here is fleshing out the world (chess is a thing), fleshing out wookies (they'll rip your arms off, even if it never happens), Luke's doing something important about his character arc (even if he's failing), and we learn something about the force (fleshing out the world).

So, think about that. This one scene offers some plot (Luke's character arc), and characterization as described above along with showing Obi Wan mentoring Luke (talking about the Force, teaching him the ways of the Jedi).

So really, this scene is working pretty hard here, even if it's subtle. Can you argue it can be improved? Yes, of course. Can you talk about Chekov's gun and the wookie rage? Yes, of course. Can you find more flaws? Yes, of course.

But think about what viewers would really have missed if this scene was skipped.

EDIT (just read the 'talk about what moves the plot' bit).

So, let's go right back to Luke's character arc. At the end of the movie, he needs to be at 'point Z', so to speak. But you can't just have him go, "A, B, Y, Z."

In this case, you are seeing tiny steps. This is Point C to point D of his character arc. He's learning more about about the force, he's seeing what he didn't know, what he doesn't understand, and he's failing at it. It's a little step, to be sure, but enough little breadcrumbs gets you out of the forest, says Hanz and Grettel.

Anyway, another way to put this is how I handled one of my stories, and Namiki Aya (from a Naruto fanfic). She was meant to master medical techniques, sound release techniques, and genjutsus by the end of the first story of her duology. But that's three tall orders, so she couldn't go from noob to OP master!

So I made her take little steps. I let her stumble with little things. Little hints here. Showing her thumbs sore and red from snapping all day from trying to learn this technique her sensei was trying to teach her. Showing her exhaustion (mental and physical) from working all day on other things. Showing her using her illusion techniques on her teammates to practice casting them, and have them practice dispelling them.

So you see her taking a lot of little steps over a longer period of time. This allows for her to grow incredibly, but in such a way that she doesn't feel overpowered, seeing as you read about her struggle to earn it along the way.

That's how you can view Luke messing up in the scene. He's growing a little, even if it doesn't seem like it.

  • Thanks and +1, so - what the reader may 'need,' is the character failing, yes? In a sense, by making A -> Z longer, we are fulfilling the contract. Don't cut scenes to make it a shorter arc. In fact, adding scenes (failures) may be necessary? My sense is that what is inherent in your answer is the idea that a scene can perform one of many functions. You listed two but elaborated to imply more. – DPT Mar 29 '18 at 20:22
  • @DPT That depends on how much wiggle room you have. In 70K words, you may not get from A to Z, but maybe to G. Plan accordingly. And yes, failing is important. If the character never fails, there's no struggle, no risk. Because they cannot fail, they never have. And I'm not saying there aren't more than two, but all I describe fall into the two main archtypes of the two as described. – Fayth85 Mar 29 '18 at 20:50
  • I think the scenes I – DPT Mar 30 '18 at 23:32
  • It also characterizes R2D2 and C3PO. R2D2 is a capable strategist, and C3PO is a coward. Chewbacca, even though he is losing to R2D2, is also not a brainless brute, since he's capable of at least enough strategy to attempt the game. Although maybe we already knew that from his helping Han pilot the ship. – jpmc26 Apr 1 '18 at 1:36
8

Universal Story Theory

Stories are about a protagonist wanting something. An antagonist or force is placed in opposition to the protagonist achieving his goal. Scenes establish the movement towards that goal or away from that goal. Think back to your “story arcs”. Rising tension until the conflict is achieved by continuously raising the stakes of your story, by introducing conflict and solving conflict until all threads come together to make the final moment where the protagonist either achieves or fails to achieve their goal.

A scene is valuable if it measurably advances the plot, supports something which does that, or most importantly earns the moments that are to come. Each of the scenes you’ve picked out are emotional beats designed to make the understanding of characters. This is important because understanding a character brings you closer to feeling emotion for them, which makes you invest in them and care about what happens.

Chess/Force Training

Everyone remembers that scene so it must be doing something. What is the main conflict of the story? The empire is building a death star and the rebels have to blow it up. How do they do that? It turns out they can't, not without Luke who must steal the death star plans and learn enough about the force to trust it over machines. What does Chess/Force Training do in the grand scheme of it all?

The team that is going to acquire the death star plans has just formed up, but they haven't gotten to know each other yet. This is a team-building scene in some ways where we see the teams differences, the things they have to overcome to earn the ability to work together. This is a scene with almost the whole team (sans leah) in the same room. We see that Han is a bit flaky, hasn't bought into "space wizardry". That foreshadows his eventual comeback. We see that Luke is frustrated; that learning the force is not easy. We see that the Wookie and Han have a long way to go to accepting the others in their "party".

It also briefly illustrates a before unforseen aspect of the force. We know it can be used to control minds, choke people (at least for evil people) but nothing else except maybe laser swords until this scene. Remember, this is the first movie. No one who watched this knew what the force was. Being able to sense laser bolts and block them is "AMAZING!". So it also has some wow, or what you might call a sense of wonder. And keep in mind that in this movie Luke has zero other force training scenes. After that the death star plot spins up and we lose Obi to provide further training. This is the only scene that sets up the big moment at the end directly for Luke where he has to learn to trust the force in order to win.

As a bonus, it also makes Chewie much more likable. And this is the smart thing about this scene. Take out the chess scene and you just have a set of characters milling about on stage or conveniently off stage. This is usually a failing in books as it removes texture. Having layers can be very good and give a sense of depth. Also, training scenes tend to be a bit didactic, which pushes a consumer away. By adding in some likability and a sub-sub-plot of "are the droids about to get wrecked?" there's a little bit of tension in the scene beyond Luke's whining about how hard using the force is. And there are some giggle's and laughs.

If only we could all write scenes that do this much while seeming to do nothing. I do not doubt that a lot of it came together as it did due to Mrs. Lukas (at the time's) careful cutting. Also, most of the elements of this scene either show us the price that has to be paid to achieve success, the distance one has to go to get there, or the difficulty of actually attaining the thing.

That is not to say this was the perfect way to impart this information. There may have been better more concise ways, but it's serviceable and it passes the "it works test" because we all remember it and we kind of love it. And what we love, we forgive even in the face of evidence of fault.

What Does that Say About Scene "Value"?

If you're looking for the unifying theory: Does this progress the plot? In your example yes it does in key ways identified above. And let's boil that down. A scene is necessary if it helps earn the pivotal moments in your story and/or provides the connective tissue necessary for those moments that earn the plot. You can't hit hard all of the time. Scene-sequel is all about raising the tension and then letting it off just a bit. The scene was "falcon escqpes" the sequel is "oh, these people are together now; what does that mean?"

If your story is about a conflict, with a protagonist on one side an an antagonist on the other. Then a scene is valuable if causes further investment in the stakes of the story and or provides attempts at progress. Progress itself is illusion. You can hand the characters success at any point. But, to earn your progress you have to make it seem reasonably earned and part of that means that your protagonists often need to try and fail multiple times before they succeed; hence try-fail cycles.

However, stories aren't just people doing things. It's often about how those things and people come together and fit to cause the things that happen. In order to make a reader want to get to the end you need to make them care about the people these things are happening to. Remember those deadly words: "I don't care about these people".

So the Chess scene ultimately works because it's about earning, developing, connecting and making us care. Now you might ask: well, how do I know when I've done enough? The answer is probably when you've taken away a piece of your story and it diminishes rather improves the thing. The easy cuts are the duplicitive ones, or the parts where you can't figure out what your story is doing in that moment that is necessary.

Being entertaining and lovable may be enough on its own, especially if you're writing an otherwise downer of a story. Sometimes you just need a bright spot for tone reasons, because it gives the reader something to love and hold on to; a reason to want the characters to succeed and get to the end.

Peter Panning & Tinkerbell

What is Hook about? It’s about a father learning to embrace his inner child in his adulthood so that he can love his family and live his life. Tinkerbell is a foil for him this entire time. She starts with memory he lacks. She knows what he needs to do and she could subsist entirely as the magical all-knowing companion, but the writers/directors/editors smartly chose to examine the major theme. Peter is at risk of forgetting who he is in this scene, which is ultimately a failure. If he becomes all-child, that’s as bad as becoming all-pirate. Tinkerbell represents a temptation: He can forget and never go back. It’s an option, just as it is for his son. This scene makes him remember his wife, his love for his wife and rekindles the fire and refocuses the plot on what Peter really wants: his kids. It’s a really smart scene and one I grow to love more with time. Super adult for a kid’s movie. :)

Ok, So Other Examples?

My favorite from recent cinema is probably the opening game of D&D in Stranger Things. It seems app here because it's also "just a game", but you might argue it does its job a bit better. It is a complete foreshadow for what is about to come. We've just seen something really dangerous, now we cut to innocent children. We get a sense of who they are, that they fight monsters and we start pulling on the sympathy vector. We immediately foreshadow the loss of a party member to the monster. But we're really ramping up on the 80s nostalgia, what it means to be a kid. Complete with begging mom for more time on a school night and riding bikes into the night; betting on comics and for the love of god eating pizza and playing games!

Could we have started with Joyce waking up in the morning, or the kid running in the woods from the monster? Yes. Would the story have been poorer for not having connected us to the characters and making us love them? Yes.

Back to SW for the closing: The Chess scene helps us love the universe. Its short. It's not explosive. And, around the other set pieces it feels small and extraneous. But, it does pull real work and honestly its some of the most important work in the movie for where the movie goes.

This Theory saved Star Wars

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://m.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DGFMyMxMYDNk&ved=0ahUKEwj-3oTqipTaAhVV0WMKHYWkC84QwqsBCDgwAg&usg=AOvVaw2AhPdL_ZbDnJ1VcyLetW2A

Star Wars was a mess the above is a useful resources that shows how they took the knife to the first in revisions. If they hadn't used this theory, the movie would have been a failure.

  • Thank you Kirk. I've seen the edit reels on star wars but don't believe I've seen the theorizing and will take a look. – DPT Mar 30 '18 at 15:57
7

You can indeed distil a story only to the scenes essential to plot progression. This is the trend of modern-day literature, perhaps influenced by the way movies are made. However, one of the differences between a movie and a book is that you are not expected to experience a whole book, start to finish, in one go. It ths has no time constraint. It can be as long as you please, offering you moments of contemplation, deviating into reflection or philosophy, and so on.

Furthermore, since a book is a media of words, not images, what in a film might be established by way of a glance and a gesture, might need a dedicated scene in a book. A scene which would appear not to progress the plot in any way, but only let us "feel" the character and the world a bit more.

Here are some examples, from literature classics.

  • What purpose does Tom Bombadil serve in the overarching narrative of the Lord of the Rings? He doesn't progress the Ring-destruction and Sauron-fighting in any way. Yet Tolkien devotes a wholechapter to the Hobbits sitting in his house and doing nothing.
  • Why do we need to know the background, character and past deeds of Bishop Myriel, prior to his charitable act towards Jean Valjean in Les Misérables? It is only his act of kindness that is relevant, not the several chapters of his life.
  • What does the reader gain from the excerpts from Yuri's diary in Dr. Zhivago, in which he discusses passages from Yevgeni Onegin? What does that advance?

The answer, I think, goes beyond "flavour", "comic relief", etc. A book isn't just about following the plot from point A to point B. Point A and point B needn't even be important. It's about the road(s) we, as readers, travel between those two points; the sights we see, the thoughts we think, the emotions we experience. The question you should be asking isn't whether a particular scene advances the plot, but whether it offers the reader something, anything, that he would not otherwise see. (As well as whether the overall story moves at the speed you want it to. If it doesn't, you might want to move a scene elsewhere in the story.) Imagine yourself on a hike: a detour to see a rare flower in bloom would not bring you any closer to the mountain peak you're trying to reach, but you wouldn't want to miss those flowers, would you?

Furthering this idea, if you look at the literature of Malot, Hugo, Tolstoy, Pasternak, and more, there is the plot, and then there are many many scenes that do not directly promote the plot, but work as tiny jigsaw pieces, that together form the world and the characters and the journey you are undertaking with them. Any one of those scenes seems to be nothing. Together they form a whole. The story is in fact, not only about the characters, but about their larger circumstance. (Hugo and Tolstoy further digress into lengthy philosophical discussions of that circumstance, what the world is and what it should be. Because it isn't about the plot.)

And then there are the literary works where there isn't even a plot, really - only the sights along the way. What is the "plot" of the Divine Comedy? Or of Don Quixote? The "plot" is only a framing device, for the little scenes, the little stories along the way.

Which is to say, no, don't feel compelled to remove a scene because it doesn't move your main plot forward. Rather than asking what the scene doesn't do, ask what it does. Does it evoke something you want evoked? Does it insert an idea into your work that you want there? Does it add depth, or breadth to the story you're telling? Or does it do nothing at all, except slowing everything down?

If you are still unsure about a particular scene, you can try reading the chapter with and without it, see what reads better.

  • This is a nice counterpoint. Thank you. – DPT Mar 29 '18 at 20:48
  • 4
    This is a point I am apparently helpless to leave unexpressed whenever the question arises: LOTR is a treatise on the nature of temptation (a theme that Lewis was also fascinated with). The ring is an instrument of temptation. What is the nature of its power? Who would be immune to its temptation? There are two answers to this: Bombadil and Sam. Bombadil is prelapsarian. Sam is the perfect servant, motivated only by love. He has no ambition. The mighty of Middle Earth know the ring would corrupt them. Only pure nature and pure love are immune. That is Bombadil's purpose in the narrative. – Mark Baker Mar 29 '18 at 20:54
  • @MarkBaker mmm, so are you saying that the LotR is both deeper and broader than the "Frodo must destroy the Ring" plot? And Tom Bombadil is a necessary part of what makes it more, invalidating the "cut everything not necessary to the narrow plot" idea? ;) – Galastel Mar 29 '18 at 21:19
  • 2
    @Galastel -- Yes. After all, why must Frodo destroy the ring? Because it is the source of all temptation. Why does he fail (he does fail, remember)? Because he succumbs to its temptation. The ring is destroyed by its own contradictions, in a fight between two of its slaves. That is what it is about, and Tom Bombadil, the prelapsarian nature spirit, illustrates the nature of the ring by its inability to tempt him. Without him, the ring is just another McGuffin. This is why there in all the post Tolkien explosion of fantasy, there is still nothing like LOTR. – Mark Baker Mar 29 '18 at 21:25
  • @MarkBaker I know. :) I was being a tad "you don't say"-ish, in regards to how what you're saying perfectly supports the main argument of my answer. I'd be careful with allegory vs. applicability: LotR definitely explores the theme of temptation, but there is far more in it than a treatise on temptation. Also, more to Tom Bombadil than his ability to resist the Ring - otherwise, why have a whole chapter in his house? And I certainly agree that this richness of meanings sets the LotR high above Tolkien's emulators. But we digress. Tolkienists' tongues run on when speaking of the LotR, they say. – Galastel Mar 29 '18 at 22:31
5

The chess scene does not directly advance the plot, but it does expose character.

C3PO is shown to be rather cowardly and avoidant of conflict. Han is both acting manipulatively and defusing a conflict (classic roguish behavior). Chewbacca isn't shown to be volatile to the point of violence in that particular scene, but the idea is planted.

This exposition comes to fruition later when the characters act consistent with these traits. E.g., Han is tempted into rescuing Leia with the promise of monetary rewards because he has no moral qualms with ignoring her imprisonment and the rebel cause. C3PO's flighty nature is a source of amusement throughout the entire series.

That scene also paces the tension by offering a somewhat comedic break after escaping the Imperial forces and introducing Luke's Force affinity.

5

So, the question is, how reliable is the advice: If the reader doesn't need it, cut it. If the scene doesn't progress the plot, cut it.[emphasis added]

I think you are conflating "needed" with "related to the plot." Here's some examples of material that may be critical to a story but not directly plot-related.

  • It may relate to an important sub-plot, e.g. progressing the story of Kenobi passing knowledge to Skywalker.

  • It may relate to critical character development, e.g. the setup of Solo as an mercenary whose personal story (his progression to pro bono heroism) must resolve for the main plot to resolve.

  • It may act as setup for a callback later, e.g. the setup of Solo as an atheist would later be called back when he bid Leia "May the Force be with you" during an emotional goodbye.

  • It may be part of greater narrative, e.g. the longstanding relationship among wookie and droids, which spans many of the films.

  • It may serve as setup for the next scene, e.g. morphing levity into forboding as the protogonists approach a particularly dangerous area.

  • It may serve a specific marketing purpose, e.g. if a stakeholder in the production hoped to merchandise themed chess sets.

  • 1
    The last point - putting art in the context of the entertainment industry - is one I might have missed. It's a very good point - even if I might have a bad feeling about it. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Mar 30 '18 at 9:35
  • 1
    It's the only way I can explain in my mind the pod races in SWTPM. – John Wu Mar 31 '18 at 21:55
4

There is also physical setting, social setting, philosophy setting, (together perhaps world building) and character building scenes.

This scene is a beat, a pause in the action, that is needed, and demonstrates life in the Star Wars universe is not a constant battle. There are things to enjoy. I think you take the "rip your arms off" line too literally, it is an exaggeration of a Wookie making a big deal of being upset. The important point is not that, it is proving Jedi's have a learning curve and proving / foreshadowing Luke can fail.

The reader does need this scene, whether it is a plot point or not, it reveals characters for several people appearing in that scene.

I could even argue that it moves the plot forward: Character abilities and changing abilities, and character failings and frustrations, are necessary to the plot too. It is a point on the character's arc to to realize "I suck at this," or "I'm sick of trying this, I can't do it."

Imagine a movie in which a female protagonist, in the first act, picks up a guy in a bar just to have company for the night, and she spends the night having sex with him in a hotel room. We never see that guy again, there are no consequences of their tryst. But the fact that she is capable of this is an important factor in her story, thus it is important to the plot. (Perhaps a later random tryst IS a plot point.)

I could say the same about a superspy movie; it opens with a firefight and our superspy kills some people, and we never see them again or know what they did. No matter, it builds the character of our superspy, he's lethal and calm under fire. Why not show that later? Because on his new mission, he doesn't get to kill anybody for 30 minutes. That's past the first act, and too late to introduce these crucial character traits that will be very important later in the story.

Let's say the same thing about a fantasy movie: If you don't introduce magic in the first act, near the opening, it can look like a deus ex machina or completely out of place. I might try to say that magic is so costly it isn't used until the end, but readers will call BS, if magic is a thing, it needs to be shown very early no matter how costly it is.

If the setting itself is dangerous (e.g. a sci-fi space setting, a dystopia, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, dinosaurs, time-travel changing history) a scene demonstrating the level of danger is in order, even if it doesn't serve the overall plot. It is building the "character" of the setting.

If I am writing a fantasy scene and wish to show a social fact, say that women and men have equal rights, the scene that does that may not move the plot forward, but can be an important thing to know for a later plot point. It is social "character" building.

The reader needs to learn about the characters and the world they live in, and some of this is shown by scenes that reveal this information without just telling it.

3

There are two methods to asses the value of an individual scene:

Beta readers

Give your text to a few test readers, ideally a sample from your target audience, and let them read your text. If a majority of your beta readers agree on the value of a certain scene, then it is highly likely that your eventual customers will agree on that value as well.

That feedback of course doesn't tell you how to proceed, because while the criticised scene might be truly superfluous, it is also possible that you haven't told it well. For that reason, the second method to asses the value of a scene is usually indispensable:

Your intuition

Most writers will have a clear gut feeling whether a scene is an essential part of their story or just an indulgence. If you feel doubt, then the scene probably isn't essential and could be deleted.

That doesn't mean that it must be deleted, of course, because in many kinds of fiction – foremost among them historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy – readers enjoy any opportunity to spend more time in the fictional world. If you write an epic tale set in an unfamiliar world, you may want many scenes that do nothing but convey atmosphere and make the world more vivid.

But your intuition that your scene might be unnecessary is usually a clear indication that it is. Delete it and read that part of your novel without it to see whether it now works better and what might be missing.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.