Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 55

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 54: Story Events That Don’t Move the Plot

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 54One 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.

creating-character-arcsIt’s a jazzy scene all right, but does it advance the plot? Does it tell us anything new about the hero’s character arc? Sure doesn’t (unless overcoming a fear of snakes is somehow key).

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.

Robber Bride by Margaret AtwoodIn 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.

Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride presents seemingly mundane story events that show the passage of time in her characters’ lives—but she made sure to do in a way that both advanced the plot and riveted readers’ attention.

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?

Yep.

Was the scene itself kinda cool?

Yep.

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

Once an Eagle by Anton MyrerIn 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.

Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer

Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle includes no random story events. Every interesting scene serves to advance the plot and the character development.

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 point buried 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

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson BurnettIn 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.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

In A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett uses every scene in her protagonist’s life to create catalysts for future story events.

***

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion? What necessary story events occur in the last chapter of your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Writing SF I have a particular problem with this because, due to orbital mechanics, spaceships often take a lot of time to get somewhere. If you start off in low-earth orbit and do an engine burn to get up to geosync, what happens is that after you shut down the engines it takes ten hours to coast uphill to the new orbit, then perhaps a minute of engine burn to stabilise.

    That’s a lot of time sitting around in the day cabin. Even if the characters cook, eat and wash up an elaborate meal there’s still about seven hours left.

    What I have found solves the problem, although I’d like to hear about any other ideas, is having a second plot thread running. I can then cut away at a chapter break and cut back as the spaceship arrives where it is going. Even using the chapter break to cut forwards by a few hours seems to work.

    The two ships slowly moved apart; then, when they were separated by their own length, Harrison gave a touch on his artificial gravity to stop the relative movement and closed the bay doors.
    ‘Lovely,’ said Heloise, ‘when are you breaking off?’
    ‘I’ll ride with you down to the one-twenty line, then I’ll go into low orbit. I’ve got to get the drone back when you’ve finished with it.’
    ‘Break off when you’re ready, and thank you,’ then, turning to Sinclair, ‘that’s it for a while, we won’t hit atmosphere for a couple of hours. Time for a second breakfast if anyone wants it. I’ll mind the shop up here while you cook, and make sure you give Jane a cuddle as you go past, she’s looking terribly worried, poor girl.’
    ‘Heloise!’ said Jane, ‘What are you trying to do?’
    Heloise smiled. ‘Your young man’s dreadfully shy. I think he needs some encouragement.’

    Chapter 12
    Two hours later they were in atmosphere, descending through clear skies towards a flat, green landscape, crosshatched with the remains of roads abandoned during the Long War, two centuries before. The drone was half a mile ahead of them and a little to the right. Sinclair had trimmed his ship in a steep nose-down attitude to match the drone’s terrifying rate of descent. Jane, having no controls to hold on to, was dangling uncomfortably from her seat harness, and trying not to be frightened.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very smart. This is a great opportunity for subtext conflict with secondary relationships. I just finished reading David Feintech’s interstellar saga Midshipman’s Hope. He did a great job of this.

  2. Thank you so much for the examples! The third example, especially, is very helpful to see since I’m likely most guilty of that one. I will definitely be referring back to this once I begin editing and even as I finish my rough draft! Excellent post, as always! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s the one that’s most likely to get any of us. It just sneaks in there under the masquerade of a “real” scene. The best way to overcome it is to make sure the scene structure is in place and driving the plot forward into the following scene.

  3. Besides too much telling, this was one of my biggest problems in my first draft. Several scenes got tossed. Outlining and story threads helped a lot, as they force you to consider how each piece relates to the whole.

    Part of the description of my MC was that he’s a huge sports fan, and listening to or watching games is part of his daily routine. In writing, I had to realize that it hurt to show it every day. Perhaps I had to let up and simply point out it’s a personality issue, even if it doesn’t end up as an every day thing.

    As I finished my chapter this weekend, I had an issue with filling time, which was likely the primary reason for me including junk the first time around. I had a day to fill, with items that logically belonged first thing in the morning and others than needed to be later in the evening. What to do with the middle? It just feels strange to ignore it.

    So I came up with something that (hopefully) both characterizes and foreshadows. The MC is frustrated that he doesn’t fit in with either the kids watching Saturday cartoons or the adults gossiping in the kitchen (let me add some cigarette smoke!) So he asks for the car keys to go listen to the game on the radio. This first part shows how he feels out of place, seeking his own group which is missing in this setting. Later on, the urge to listen to the BIG game which is on at the same time as his cousin’s birthday party creates a conflict that he is called out on, forcing him to set priorities and subordinate his own pleasure for other’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have an untested theory that this problem is more likely to occur when a novel is pantsed, since you don’t always know *which* scenes are actually pertinent until you finish the plot. But outliners can certainly fall into the mistake as well if we forget to pay attention to the chain reaction of proper scene structure.

      • As someone who ‘pantsed’ my novel’s first draft (and then had to rewrite the whole thing for the second draft), I completely agree. I feel like writing extraneous scenes was one way to meet self-imposed ‘500-words-a-day’- type deadlines. That’s why I am somtimes cautious about telling myself that I need to write a set number of words. I’ve been moving towards telling myself that I need to write a set number of SCENES instead. When you have a word target, you end up with lots of padding. When you have a scene target, you tend to write more concisely, because the less words you use the quicker you’ll meet your goal.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Back when I had this problem, I used to focus on time goals instead–e.g., write for two hours. That worked well for me for a long time.

        • I’ve never set word goals. My outline goes down to a set of scenes, with a description of what needs to happen in each. At the start of each chapter I’ll review the upcoming scenes, and each time I start a scene I’ll sketch it out in more detail – the general description of the actual events along with what back story or subtext it will touch on, any foreshadowing, and what characterizations . Then I’ll start pantsing through the scene, knowing that standard size ones will end up between 2k and 3k words.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            One reason I have started using word-count goals is that I seem to get longer and longer-winded with each book I write. Have to rein myself in. :p

      • I think you’re on to something there (pantsed) During this second revision I’ve spotted more scenes that just went around no were and well, bored me. Snp! snip! snip! If it’s boring it’s got to die.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Best rule of thumb there is! If it bores you, it will definitely bore readers.

          • My otehr big problem (I’m trying to fix) is to leave things (or to mention something) and then forget about it. That and logic flaws. I had things all smooth, but with all these revisions the books become like um, lumpy pancake batter. (That was bad .. but funny?)

            (Looks at book) I don’t wana! (Goes and pokes at another chapter.)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Books are such an intensive–and usually long–process that it’s difficult to avoid inconsistencies. Fortunately, that’s what we have editing (and beta readers!) for.

          • Thank goodness! And, it’s nit finished until I say it is. (Or when I can’t find anything left to fix.)

          • Typo: nit = not

            I know it needs something sniped out of it as it’s grown to a monster of around 123k words. It was even bigger last week but a found several “why is this even in here?!?” scenes that I deleted or saved (I thought some were cool. sometimes I can recycle a scene or parts of it later.)

            Like in the first draft the main pov removed her own soul and turned it into a weapon I thought was pretty bad azz (at the time.) but, came to feel that it was forced to fit the title, and too literally at that.

            So, I saved it as it’s hard to delete that fun stuff. Also it plunged her into an Over powered “perfect” character with a google of magical powers. Yay for drafts! I’m on draft 83456. XD (I lost count.)

            Now shes got more well, character and “helpfull” dark powers with a hefty cost. That still needs to be woven in more. I just started fixing that. I’m having fun with this as the story progresses and I start taking away the powers/gifts. >:) I feel so EVIL. *Cackles.*

            I love talking about the characters and hope that wasn’t too long. (And unasked or prompted for.)*cough*

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It’s amazing how those “why are these even in here?” scenes can escape our notice draft after draft. I did a major word count-trimming pass through my WIP earlier this year and managed to cut around 60k, using the process I talk about here: 5 Ways to Trim Your Book’s Word Count.

          • Wow 60k words? that is so cool I’m definitely going to go read that page; thanks!!

            another problem I’m seeing now and been avoiding is the inconsistencies i’ve got going on (uggg!) Blarg, blarg. But onece I fix one and then check all the chapters to make sure the changes line up I feel like the ending is showing it self a little more.

            Humph, first books are a pain to fix as I knew nothing back then and made a huge mess and now it’s like trying to untangle necklaces that are knotted together in your jewelry box.

            You have to do it, but it’s exasperating.

            Magic want and poof its all fixed. >_<

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            The good news is it gets easier with each book. And also harder. 😉

          • Thanks again for the link to your trim it posting. I couldn’t find any scenes to cut out. I did this a few months ago (god that took forever.) I took out several chapters, mashed several together.

            I did find a chapter that I went into not that long ago and put in a spot where Merryn was talking about why she hates caves. 1. she doesn’t talk that much 2. it was way over the top.

            so a little over 1k words was cut out. good I like it when my chapters hover around 2500 words or so. Some refuse to go shorter. Others are super short like 1300 words.

            Okay back to that posting. ^^

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            That’s great! It’s always wonderful when you find large chunks to cut all at once. Makes the whole process much easier than pulling words out one at a time here and there.

  4. Cool, now I can look for more things to cut. 🙂 I just finished last night the gutting of three chapters.

    Were the propagandist and her friends are in deep trouble, as the god had taken her over. Near the end she ripped back control long enough to make a portal and toss them into it.

    All fine and good right?

    So um … how in the heck to get her out of this when the baddies have beaten her to a pulp practically? (I put the story into a corner so dang much it drives me crazy; well, it is fun figuring out how to fix it.)

    I back tracked reading the chapters until around chapter 5. There was had a spot for some foreshadowing and event type stuff.

    A baby bugbear in there that wasn’t doing anything much, so had her save it from being experimented on and it escaped not long after.

    Fast forward to chapter 25 after the portal scene.

    There he is escaping that place (sorry just trying to keep this simple.) Anyway, as he grows older he thinks that she might be able to re-connect him with his missing people and goes to find her. Might as well as his mom was killed during earlier experiments by one of the antagonists.

    He does eventually find her and helps bring her back. I know it doesn’t sound like it works but it does. I’m just not giving all the details. XD

    (This has taken a couple of weeks to revise, here and there when it had the time.)

    Anyway, fixing up a scene that’s just there can become key later on; like you’re talking about in here. But man, can it take a while working the kinks out!

    The only thing I need to remember to do is go in and add in some time transitions that say: “A week ago” or something so I don’t confuse people during the pov switch of the chapters.

    Thank you for this, this is going to be another weapon in making sure every scene is intertwined and working toward the end.

    I’ve also been working on my spelling, grammar, punctuation and typing. I hope this message is more readable then the previous ones.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m often asked about how to do time transitions between scenes, but usually it’s just as simple as you’ve indicated. A quick reference to the fact that time has passed and how much is usually more than enough to orient readers.

      • I like to keep things simple that way when I need to do something more elaborate to get attention on it, I think it’ll matter more then if it’s always done in that way. With descriptions too; just enough so they aren’t floating heads and are interacting with the environment.

        Can someone help me to reword this so it’s in deep pov I tried switching the wording around but it just gets awkward:


        She was startled by the sight of several new raw, ragged scars. He wasn’t always like this when she was younger he had less, but that was before the revolution. A gentleness gleamed from within his eyes. —-

        I can’t just delete it as the person she’s describing is going to have a big part in the second book. (I’m almost finished and my brain keeps jumping over to the second one that isn’t not even started yet. I’m excited.)

        Thank you for replying K.M. Weiland =D

  5. Oh, I forgot bugbears grow fast like teenager age in a week. *cough* hopefully readers will let that fly.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds fun!

      • It is 😀 I think the bugbear (Leo) is most fun to write as he has an inhuman point of view.

        Humans are stinky and you need to hold your breath, behemoths are beautiful creatures, lightnings storms are cozy and pretty, dead things are fun.

        Humans sure are squishy and also crazy running around screaming all the time. XD

        I have to be carfull not to get carried away and stick to the plot.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Characters who tempt you to run away with the plot are often the best ones in the story.

          • Cool, I didn’t know that. ^-^ My main character is also fun to do too. She taps into my inner Bad A** and I have the easiest time doing fight scenes. sometimes she doesn’t like to talk to me though. (lol.)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Strong but silent type, eh? 😉

          • Yes she is. But when she does say something it’s important. Some times I get a weird head rush with some scenes with her. Like when she rejects Parcivals advances and drops the flower he gave her. The flower is also an attempt at foreshadowing. ^^

            (She’s crying inside because she thinks that if he isn’t pushed away the antagonist will end up killing him simply for being around her.)

            Pretty much true as the god’s spirit that’s piggybacking in her is slowly killing her. So …

  6. This I have trouble with, especially the first one where time is passing and you feel like you need to fill it with something. My current protagonist is on a long journey, traveling through country he’s never seen before, in a mode of transportation he’s never used before. I can’t just skip everything because the relationships he makes on the journey pretty much IS the story, but trying to figure out the balance can be tough.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just make sure the relationships and events you’re including *are* important and you’ll have no trouble. Another good test is to see if the things and people that appear in the first half are referenced or remembered in an important way sometime in the second half.

      • Thanks. I don’t think I’m dropping anyone (it’s a really small cast of characters) but that’s a good thing to check. Mostly I need to not ramble on after the scene should be over. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Actually, you raise a really good point, which is to start scenes “late” and end them “early.” That’s usually the best way to find the right hooks for opening and closing too.

    • A thought here; I think you might just be a little over thinking of this. If you keep the events moving along at a good pace and everything has to do with the story then it’s not an error, mistake, or something to worry about.

      • In a Fantasy book I still love even twenty years later I remember the protagonist was in a wagon with a much of merchants, as the weeks went buy she started to earn their respect and eventually married the leader.

        She had never before lived out side of her city, much less ride in a wagon or occasionally a horse.

        This the middle and ending of the book I remember the most. So please add in what you’re talking about it might end up to be your readers favorite part. =D

        Let know if I’m talking too much I’m super chatty today. Usually I lurk.

        • You’re not talking too much. 🙂 In `The Gammage Cup’ by Carol Kendall, my favorite chapters are when the outlawed heroes are building a cabin in the wilderness, and you get to see the main character step up and take charge because someone has to. Thanks for the encouragement.

          • OOh, that sounds exciting 😀 Okay. ^-^ In a different book that I love is when this rascal of a warrior woman for hire has to out smart a cranky dragon and ended up involving an old honor code on the dragon.

            She ended up having to grab the halfling and run back out the entrance as the cheeky halfing kept insulting the dragon. That chapter was so funny.

            That was also the first time I read a fantasy that wasn’t ho-hom “popcorn” fantasy.

            You’re welcome. 🙂

  7. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    I like all the samples. I also have problem some times writing about a birthday scene for the mermaid or if they are swimming or talking.

    There is one scene that maybe it would be good to shorten-

    As Leilani bathed for the dinner banquet she was relaxing in the tub when she suddenly had a vision! She gasped as pain racked her body then she saw two children, a boy and a girl. They were crying “help us,” and it was obvious they were very ill. Priestess Cara felt Leilani’s pain and rush to her cottage to aide the goddess! Leilani cried out and reach for the children, but they just vanished!. She left weak and dizzy for a few moments. Cara hurried into the bathing room, she saw at once the mermaid-princess was very pale and shakened. She helped her out of the tub and waited until she got her legs then sat her down on a lounge.
    Cara quickly made some Susla tea and ordered the mermaid-princess to drink it. After a few minutes Leilani got some color back and could speak. “Oh, Cara what happened? Where are those children?” She asked. The tea was helping her to calm down. Cara started brushing Leilani’s hair as she did she spoke softly lest others were listening nearby. “You had a vision, my lady,” “But, it was so real,” Leilani whispered. “I could feel their pain, was that real too?” “Yes, my lady, you have many gifts and you will receive more as you grow more mature and learn how to use those gifts,” Cara gently said. She continued. “The children have are ill as is their entire village,” She paused then went on. “they have the yellow death. This is why so many realms are starting to get sick. This is also why you are here, you are the chosen one to bring hope and healing to the refuges that are coming here,” Leilani turned and looked the priestess in the eye. “but there is more isn’t there,” she stated then added. “I thought the yellow death had been eradicated long before I was born,” Cara started weaving blue and white star flowers in the young woman’s glossy black curls. “Yes, it was for a time,” she agreed. “but and the island was over looked during the cleansing. It was a small isolated island no one really knew of its existence other than the mother goddess herself and she seldom interfers as we are allowed to choose even if those choices are not in our best interests,” “But, why am I the chosen one?” Leilani asked. “It was forseen a thousand years ago by the old ones,” Cara added some pearls to the strands of hair as she continued. “the story goes an evil will cover the planet and illness and darkness will follow, when all seems lost, a powerful goddess who is the first born twin. She is blood linked to the mother goddess herself,” Leilani shivered as she considered what the priestess was telling her. “I knew I was sent to heal, but I had no idea things were so bad..is this the reason I must learn weasponery and self defense and stealth?” “Yes, my lady, you must know all things that will help you save the realms,” Leilani was quiet for a moment deep in thought.
    Then she spoke. “if it’s the yellow death why do we need weaspons?” Cara looked sad but continued to work on the goddess’ hair. “because,” she said. “the yellow death is being used as a weaspon in revenege,” Leilani started to ask. “who?” but Cara continued to explain she then told Leilani the story of the yellow bird and the deaths and about Ruben, then she told her about the old man whom she was related to and how Ruben would continue to destroy until no one was left.
    Leilani was stunned and sadden, but angry also. “but this prophecy was long ago how can you be so sure?” she asked. Cara finished with Leilani’s hair stood and looked the young woman in the eyes. “Because I too saw this vision and I have seen your visions as well. You, my child. You are the one who will save us all, but it will come at a hug price,” Leilani started to speak but was stopped as Cara raised her hand. “I don’t know what that price be. Reguardless, you do not have a choice for without you the whole planet could die,”
    Leilani jumped up. “oh no,” she gasped. “I am only one person, how can I defeat this illness and why am I training with weapons and martial arts? To fight an invisble disease?” “No, my lady, you need training to fight Ruben and his army,” Cara replied. “Ruben has an army?!” Leilani’s voice shook. She was shocked. “when did this happen?” she asked. Cara handed Leilani a gown as she continued her story. “Ruben as you know is a sea deity as is many in our realm,”
    Leilani nodded. “Most of us are good creatures,” Cara continued. “and avoid conflict.. we share with each other and use our gifts only in times of need. We should never harm another,” She helped the goddess fasten her dress as she continued to talk. “instead of grieving like most of us. He became angry and wanted to blame someone. So he traced the lineage of the old man, and guess what he found?” Leilani realized the truth.

    Do you think it is good to shorten it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If all the information is pertinent to the story, you’re fine. If not, cut what doesn’t need to be there. When in doubt, cut.

  8. Usvaldo deLeon, Jr says:

    Wrestling rattlesnakes into submission…that’s EVERYDAY here in Tucson! It’s only exciting if you have bad technique. Yes, it is best to leave that part out.

  9. I was shortly reading a book where the pace was so crawling slow I gave up reading altogether. It was packed with repetitive routine scenes that added nothing to the almost unexisting plot, eventually, I couldn’t read more about the boring character’s routine of rowing boats, practicing yoga and talking about wine endlessly during dinners. It was so boring I was amazed that it managed to be a bestseller even tough, people really choose weird books sometimes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Literary novels tend to get away with a slower pace, since they’re more interior. But the exchange for focused plot *must* be great character development and beautiful prose.

      • In this bestseller book, there was nice descriptive prose, but the characters were really superficial, clichés even, it got boring after I read for the tenth time that the hero smelled like cloves and the heroine, a mary sue kind of character had enchanting blue eyes and unending witch power that she didn’t want to use. 🙂

  10. Wynn Guthrie says:

    Hmm. I’m probably guilty of this often. Thing is, I am quite fond of slice-of-life books where the plots meander – The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark, and the Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard come to mind here. These have shifting points of view, and from the standpoint of plot, nothing much exciting *happens.* People get married. Elderly aunts die, teenagers make decisions sensible and poor, fathers have affairs, mothers are stricken with cancer, children gently argue about things important to children. Alliances between characters form and are dissolved and reform differently. Views change.

    And that, to me, is interesting.

    I realize that it’s an older style, and that what seems to sell most easily is plot-driven stuff, but honestly, that lean storytelling style always seems very… thin… to me. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise you that I also really love mystery novels by Martin Cruz Smith and Scott Turow, where the action is minimal, often happens somewhere other than the page, and the clues are frequently hidden in plain sight, in the middle of some conversation the reader thought was just filler.

    Obviously, to do this well takes skill, and there is a distinct danger of overdoing the protagonists’ personal observation stuff. But as a reader I’m often disappointed by plot-driven books being, well, too plot-driven. There are still a number of complaints that the Harry Potter series is too wordy and spends too much time on description instead of moving the plot forward, but I disagree. I mean, I LIKE roller coasters, okay? but if you’re on the roller coaster, you never see any scenery. I see no reason why every amusement park ride has to be a roller coaster and every novel must must must be lean and plot-driven.

    I really should read that Myrer novel, though. The only one of his I’ve read is The Last Convertible, which I love and have reread often.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As you say, it takes skill. It’s a little harder to pinpoint why scenes such as the ones you’ve mentioned *are*, in fact, pertinent to their stories. They’re not as obvious as the integral dominoes in a fast-paced, plot-heavy novel. But they *are* integral. There’s always a reason certain events are being portrayed, if only to highlight certain character traits or to emphasize a certain perspective of the world.

    • This is true. I think a good book is mix of both.

  11. I write using Scrivener. I’ve customized the Meta Data settings to include the purpose of a scene (as well as motivation, conflict, etc. If I can’t note the scene’s purpose in a few words, then I know it needs to be deleted or revised.

  12. Megan Brummer says:

    I’m definitely guilty of this. Especially when trying to do large sprints like NaNo…

    I also get in trouble when I’m aiming for a specific word count. “Ok, I want to reach the Mid-Point in 4,200 more words so that it fits with the word count of my first act, so what 4,200 words can I fill in here to get from Point A to Point B…?”

    Thank goodness for editing and revising!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one reason I resisted word-count goals for most of my career. I use them now, but early on, they were just roadblocks between me and meaningful plot developments!

  13. I love it when your blog posts speak to exactly what I’m stuck on at the moment! I’m working on a tight timeline of a week. On a Monday, the MC takes her friend to a prenatal appointment and the worried doctor schedules an ultrasound for that Friday to make sure everything is okay. I need her to forget about the appointment by the time she’s supposed to be driving her friend there, so I wrote a scene. Some of it conveys necessary plot information (and clues for the reader regarding a subplot), but part of it doesn’t work at all. And it didn’t give her motivation to forget about her distressed friend, so I set about writing another scene, which isn’t working either.

    Now, I wish I had the answer for how to make her forget (I don’t think a time cut will work in this case, because there’s no way the reader will forget about her friend’s appointment), but at least I know why I’ve spent the past week hating every word I’ve written. 🙂

    • Maybe I can help. I frequently forget new things that are inserted into my routine because 1) I never write things down, depending on my memory and 2) that memory favors the things that are routine.

      What would the MC normally be doing on Friday if not for her friend’s appointment? If it can be something that’s done with a person other than the pregnant friend, have that third person call up and verify the routine event for Friday – which also helps because that reminder is more recent.

      My wife has fallen prey to this sometimes. Her elderly mother calls her to ask, “Will you drive me to the grocery store?” which happens regularly but not always on a fixed schedule. After she’s at the store, she remembers that our granddaughter had an appointment.

      • Joe– thank you! She ends up going on a date that lasts all day and forgets about the appointment. I want her to have already forgotten before the date starts so she doesn’t say she has to be home at a certain time or whatnot. Granted, with this relationship she’s prone to forgetting her logic completely anyway, but I wanted to give her a head start. Part of what I’ve already decided is that she won’t charge her phone the night before and unbeknownst to her it will die partway through their date so it won’t send her the reminder she set up and none of the friend’s texts will come through. 🙂

        K.M.–I have a feeling asking “what if” questions would be much quicker than the writing, deleting, and rewriting I’ve been doing all week. should help me fix both the place in the already completed scene where I know it isn’t moving the plot forward but I want to keep AND the missing events between Wednesday and Friday that make her somehow forget. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I love “what if” questions. They make everything better. And they’re fun. 🙂

        • I’m picturing that the boyfriend calls on Thursday and she gets lost in conversation. Then he says, “How about lunch tomorrow?” while she’s thinking of nothing but him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just keeping asking “what if?” questions as you logic your way through it. There is *always* a right answer. You just have to find it. 🙂

  14. Great examples. Now I have to backtrack over my scenes.

  15. Roberto Fiocco says:

    In the story I’m writing, with a little depressed main character, I need sometimes to create “revelation scenes” that give him the necessary motivation to go on; step by step he will be more and more engaged in the conflict (the main conflict of my novel) and he can go on without the need of an ‘external help’.
    This post helped me to remember to make these revelation scenes, as I call them, more natural and strongly connected to the plot. I’d like to ask you if you think this kind of character arc will be boring for the reader, or if it is completely wrong. My main character’s depression is motivated to the reader, but I think the novel will be very boring in the first part. What can I do?
    Thanks for your posts and your patience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Are those early depression-centric scenes boring to you? If you’re finding them interesting while writing them, focus on *why* they’re interesting to you. Beef up those aspects. And if they bore you to write them, perhaps evaluate why you’re including them in the first place. They may not be as crucial as you initially think.

      • Roberto Fiocco says:

        Thank you for your help. My main character “need” to be as I created him, so I will review all the first act to see where eventually the story is boring and, if needed, I’ll beef up the aspects that make those scenes important for the story.

  16. Coming up with scenes to fill time is one of my weaknesses in my current WIP. My main character spends a pretty large amount of time having to wait on people to travel from one place to another in a world where the fastest mode of transport is either rowing a boat down a river or riding animal-back in relays. Thanks for the reminder that scene breaks are a perfectly acceptable option!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one reason my own fantasy and historical novels drive me nuts. I want my character to reach their destinations (via horseback) NOW. :p

      • I laugh at NCIS when at the office in DC Gibbs gathers his team to head out to a crime scene in Norfolk, Va – and they arrive twenty minutes later. The writers just ignore that it takes time to travel, unless they find something important to the plot to do while they’re in the car.

      • Have a behemoth chase them they’ll get their pretty fast. XD

  17. Ms. Albina says:

    In the co-author book-the transportation is fly, boat, horse and buggy and swimming as well as teleportation for gods.

    I would like to have the power of teleport but I don’t. I don’t care for flying in the airplane.

  18. Let’s see… Somehow I ended up writing a romance set in my rural hometown. I wrote the last 2.5 pages last night when I should have been reading for my literature class, cleverly skipped external description along a walked route used previously by getting inside the male character’s (Abel) head a little bit… She’s (Darlene) standing there shooting soda cans with her favorite b-b gun (better make that a pistol), she’s mad at him for incident x the day before, he tries to make amends, asks for a second chance, she has to think about it, he leaves (probably for the best).

    Actually, probably the most irrelevant thing I’ve written in this story so far was at the end of my last 5-page session, when Abel is doing his Bible Lit homework (Now who was that who Cain slew in the book of Genesis? Eh, it’l come to me). Yeah, that seems kind of out of place, but in the scheme of things, it was how he decided he would go see the she character again. I still wonder if I could make that transition better though… Hmm…

  19. A technique I’ve been using is when I have an activity that will be repeated, I detail it the first time, btu afterwards let the readers assume it’s the same unless I tell them that it’s not.

    For example, the first day of school I describe being late, rushing out of the house and speeding up the highway. I characterizes the MC and describes the visual setting of the college and it’s geographic relationship to his home.

    The first time he drives over to watch the football game at his cousin’s I describe waiting at home and then the drive over, where everything on the radio before noon on Sunday is either polkas or preachers – again helping to describe the town. For the second week, a few days before she asks, “Are you coming over to watch the game on Sunday” then after the Saturday scene I just jump into a scene in the living room – a couple paragraphs in having someone ask, “How long until kickoff?” to establish the setting. “I told you on the phone last night…” allows me to skip having a scene for that and I jumped over any description of traveling to their house. Those felt too dull to me at this point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, totally smart. Same goes for rehashing info. If the reader was there for the live event or the first explanation, a simple reference to the fact that the info *is* being reshared is usually enough to get the point across without slowing down the scene.

  20. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    My other project is a novella with Jewel, Leilani’s grandmother who finds out she has to get married. This is when before Leilani is born since Jewel is a teenage mermaid who finds out she has to marry Kai, the sapphire clan mer-prince from the sapphire sea on planet Avanaria.

    In some books have you read that the characters had an arrange marriage from birth?

  21. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    Thank you. This is what will happen in the novella I am writing. Do you know of any good independent publishers who publish novels as well as novellas?

    Here is my scene sample that I plan on revisingChapter 1

    Deep in the fathoms below of the turquoise sea merfolk lived. There were different varies of colorful fish and coral too. An underwater cavern had treasures of pearls and different jewels in wooden chests. The wooden chests varied in size from small to large. There was a magical door that had Mera clan on it and you could swim threw if you knew where to look. Beyond the door, there was a beautiful palace shown in all different shades of the sea.

    Merfolk swam past the palace. The royal mer-folk lived in the place and the priestesses and elders. Everyone who was good, kind, passionate, or caring was welcomed into the palace.

    The mer-queen and mer-king sat on their jewel thrones. They were having a conversation about their twins seventeenth birthday.

    In one of the rooms Merlyn had made Jewel and Marissa’s raven curly hair beautiful. She put pearl combs in the twin’s hair.

    A neighing clan was arriving with a mer-prince and his two sisters. The other clan had a palace not as lustrous as Jewel’s family had.

    The mer-prince had raven hair and his sisters, Nerine and Nerissa did too and theirs was longer than his. He wore a sapphire sash or a sapphire tunic over his dark bronze skin. His sisters wore a sapphire necklace and a tunic also. They arrived about midday.

    Can you picture this scene of you were watching this as a tv show or movie?

  22. Thanks for this. I recently got a rejection that included a critique (gold!) about characterization. But in reexamining my protagonist’s motivation, I’m seeing plenty of places where I 1) haven’t made it clear, by 2) wasting time on stuff that doesn’t necessarily establish it. Hack and slash!!

    Your site is great, but for some reason it squishes up really badly in Chrome and is unreadable. I need to check my settings, I guess–wouldn’t want to miss out on all this great advice!

  23. Andrewiswriting says:

    I’m going to left-field this one (yes, I know I’m a week late, I’ve been busy :))

    You know the genre I’m writing in. Part of Harry Potter’s enduring appeal and runaway success is the richness of the setting and the cute touches (every flavour jelly beans). There are whole swathes of that series that don’t advance the plot, but develop the character of the setting, and people all over the world fell in love with that setting.

    If you’ve seen Fantastic Beasts, Gigglewater is an example of this. It doesn’t do anything to advance the story, it just adds a Potterverse touch to the setting.

    So, if you’re heading down this track, there will be worthwhile inclusions to create the character of the setting for people to fall in love with.

    That said, such things can also camouflage foreshadowing. I have a few scenes in The Cup of Jamshid that would seem (with no context) to just be window dressing. Some of them are, but they serve mostly to camouflage the ones that foreshadow something that will matter later in the series.

    I guess my point is that there are more reasons for including a scene than just advancing the plot. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good points, all. Still, I’d argue that even the whimsiest (my new word) of pleasurable scene additions can be all the better by making them pertinent to the plot in some way.

  24. It figures I finally pay attention to a dark out pop up and it won’t work for me.

    This is what I’m talking about (just in case I’m being confusing.)

    FREE Writing Guide Download
    Discover the “SECRETS” of story structure other authors are overlooking!

    What you’ll learn…

    And this is what it said when I entered my email:

    Oops! It looks like there was an error: There was an error with your submission: There was an error saving the data to Campaign Monitor. Email Address exists in unconfirmed list. Subscriber is not added.

    So It has my email, but is holding on to it and refuses to use it? O___o;; *twitch* (I’m guessing.)

    Hope you can fix this, thanks.

  25. You know … the words that you can trim out to cut down on the word count? almost all of them are “telling” words instead of showing! So It’s a good change to realy look at the sentence and; I go is that deep enough?

    Then comes hard part fixing it. ACK.

    like this stuff:

    The man stepped around the counter. He held out his arms, palms up, a pleading look on his face.

    So this isn’t deep pov? :a pleading look on his face.

    Right? No it’s not. *nods* Trying to figure out what pleading looks like and then describe it. Just what does pleading look like? And on an old man (the me”merchant” is important hies one of the first plot twist. Fun, fun. So I can’t skimp on him.)

    Perhaps skip the face/eyes and do a hand description? Great; I’m stuck again. Blea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This doesn’t mean you *can’t* simply tell readers the look is pleading. Sometimes that will be the best, most straightforward, vivid approach. But it’s always worth the while to think twice in these instances and see if you can come up with the more original alternative.

      • Um .. I know! For when you need to pull back?

        I fiddled with it some more:

        A merchant yelled from behind, his narrow counter several feet away.

        “Young lady, you shall find the finest delicacies here! Why, we have the rare Basitg fruit from across the five seas! Guaranteed to be of value!”

        His words had a honey quality to them that made her pause.

        “Some other time.” She steeped to the side where there was more space, while covering the wound.

        He was a tall man, wizened and stringy. His wind-weathered skin reminded her of an old soggy boot. His eyes were sharp and youthful for his age, and had a fiery glint to them. Odd.

        “No thank you.” She attempted to move past him, while covering the wound. Don’t need any poisoned fruit, thank you.

        The man stepped around the counter. He held out his arms with palms up.

        “But, wait! I am an aged man trying to pay the taxes here. Will not you reconsider?”

        His smile was forced and more a grimace that spread across his face and his eyes conflicted with this; a pain of some sort shone through.

        He laid his palms together gradually separating them; a dark energy ball formed between his hands. A rounded object grew in the center. After a few seconds, a precious golden pear appeared, its skin an iridescent yellowish color. His smile smoothed out returning to normal.

        “Young lady, why don’t you take this; it is a rare fruit, said to give extraordinary powers to those who eat it.” He moved it in his hands, the light reflecting off its sides.

        “I need to go.” The pain was flooding in it was hard to concentrate. Let me be.

        “A special offer today: only three hundred twenty-five, gold!”

        “If this is so rare, why aren’t you giving it to a noble?” She gripped the counter to stop her hands from shaking.

        Does that work?

        • Whoops! Too many thanks you’s and mentioning of the wound. *goes and edits*

        • Pretty good. I was able to visualize it well. Might need a few touches to the wording.

          “A merchant yelled from behind, his narrow counter several feet away.”

          From behind her or behind the counter? “Yelled” sounds angry, but he was trying to make a sale. “Called out” or “beckoned” sound better to me.

          “His eyes were sharp and youthful for his age, and had a fiery glint to them. Odd.”

          He..his…his; and then the ‘odd’ at the end. How about: “…while his eyes were oddly sharp and youthful for his age and had a fiery glint to them.” (I know – adverbs)

          • Thank you Joe, beckoned does sound better! The Odd part is her thought. If I have explain that it most not be very clear that it is yet (ack!) I’ll go revise it.

            I like that revision but I tripped over the “and” for some reason. how about:

            His eyes were oddly sharp and youthful for his age. The sun’s glare reflected

            !@#$! blurg no, that’s not working.

            a fiery glint flashed in them, and the edges crinkled. no no no no … umm..

            The crinkled skin folded down around his eyes highlighting the fiery glow of youth that was so at odds with the rest of him.

            Ya, there we go! What do you think?

            Thanks I just needed a prompt. ^o^

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I like it! Kept my attention.

      • I didn’t know that; it’s to know that there’s some leeway with this. thank you! This should cut down on getting stuck on sentences for days, at least a little. I really like to try to show the emotion when I can. Even harder is describing how an emotion or physical sensation feels for the main pov. sometimes it’s easy like a twisted ankle (he just google it) other times it’s frustrating as heck, like when someone is embarrassed. I don’t use blushing much because my character (to me at least) is in her twenties so isn’t a teenager and must act the part.

        Off topic, I do wonder about those emotion lists that writers love so. If every writer is using them won’t they become cliché? So .. that makes me want to try even harder to come up with something new. Most of the time I make it other times okay fine, that character isn’t going to frown (as I’m sick of the word too.) *delete, delete*

        I’m on chapter 59 and I hate the little conjunction “and.” You need this along with the others for complex and the complex-compound sentences (I don’t use them much but sometimes have to), but I want to bring down the word count too. I can’t win. xP

  26. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    In my novella I have my character Jewel helping someone on Planet Avanaria which she will do. She-Jewel is not Leilani’s grandmother yet but will be.

    Did someone do your dreamlander map for you? My novella will have 17 chapters total. Do you put directions in your book of dreamlander?

    I mean in mine Jewel needs to find the palace which is north west of where she is. I mean if you had a compass of north, south, east, and west.

  27. K.M.,

    Cool, I am getting my mermaid novella ready to be publishable hopefully on my birthday.

    Merry Christmas

  28. Yup, I hit a point in the novel I’m writing, 70K words in while introducing a new main character to the story. So I have this scene where a Princess (the new MC) is out on a hunting trip on the lawless fringes of her father’s kingdom. At one point, she wanders across a small mob of people attempting to execute an unarmed helpless man. She tries to intervene and things heat up fairly quickly because no one recognizes her initially and believe she was here to try and stop the execution. So we have a recipe for disaster on our hands.

    So the scene is action pack and full of dialogue, exposition and character development all rolled up into one. But at the same time, even as I was in the middle of writing it, something just felt… off about it all. While the scene itself illustrates a character goal, situation, and conflict, it lacks the most important ingredient of all. Plot progression. Everything that happens in this high action scene doesn’t have any longing repercussions later in the novel. I could literally cut the entire scene out and it’ll still flow the same way.

    I know I should cut it, but it does serve as good character development and exposition to the universe I’ve created… but that’s just the thing really lol. I’m still trying to use one of your pointers: try and rework the scene so that it can fit nicely in the plot, so there’s still hope I can salvage it. But for now, I’m split 50/50.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If I had a nickel for all the scenes I tried to write in which nothing happened and something felt “off”… well, you know… 😉 The good news is that once you start recognizing what’s going on, it gets much easier to avoid this problem in the future.

  29. Hannah Gaudette says:

    Thanks, a million times over! This post recently saved me from making a horrible mistake with an unnecessary scene (or chapters) that really would have messed up my WIP. So again, thanks. Your blog has more than once been a “go-to” in my writing.

    God Bless.

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