Why You Might Be Ruining Your Story's Best Scenes

Why You Might Be Ruining Your Story’s Best Scenes

This week’s video talks about why appropriate repercussions will always be the earmark of your story’s best scenes.

Video Transcript:

Stories are about stuff that happens. But even more, they’re about stuff that happens because other stuff happened.

In short, they’re about repercussions.

Every event in your story needs to create character reactions that are so radical and progressive the story couldn’t be the same without them. This harks back to the standard advice that if you can pull any scene from your story without changing the overall plot, then that event probably isn’t important enough to the plot to stay in the book.

What this all comes down to is this: everything your character does in your story must result in repercussions. The bigger the character’s action, the bigger the repercussion. Otherwise, no matter how big and impressive and generally awesome your latest scene, it simply has no impact on the plot. And if it has no impact on the plot—if everyone just goes on their merry way as if nothing really happened—then you’ve essentially told readers that this big, awesome event really wasn’t that big or awesome.

This goes beyond just making sure all your characters react to events, which I’ve talked about before. This is about making sure your characters never get off easy.

For example, a fantasy I read recently featured a shocking scene in which the protagonist kills someone by tossing her over his balcony. It’s a scene that completely shifts the paradigm of the story, in ways that had the potential to be extremely interesting. As it turned out, however, this scene ended up being completely inconsequential to the story because the character experienced zero repercussions. His bodyguards cover up the murder; his family forgives him. There’s not even much soul-searching going on.

Not only did the author zap the potency right out of this powerful scene, he also weakened the causality of his entire story and its world by proving that his protagonist will never be held accountable for any of his decisions or actions.

Tell me your opinion: What repercussions result from your story’s best scenes?

Why You Might Be Ruinint Your Story

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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. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Spoiler alert! (But by the time the novel comes out, you’ll have forgotten.)

    One of my characters was raised Roman Catholic, but she thinks she’s now an atheist…except that after she tortures a pedophile and kills him, she suffers so much RC remorse, she reveals a secret to the wrong person and that revelation hurts her BFF, so she commits suicide, partly to protect her friends from further disclosures due to her remorse, and partly because she believes her soul died when she killed the bad guy.

    There is one sex scene in the novel that could probably be dumped because nothing really happens as a result, except in the mind of the reader and the protagonist, but there are three reasons I’m keeping it: it strengthens a red herring and introduces the idea that the protagonist has yet one more antagonist; it provides comic relief at a tense point in the story (pacing); and, thematically, it provides a contrast between the way an adult survivor of childhood abuse experiences sex to that of a woman who was never abused. Beta readers don’t think the scene slows the story down.

    I know the scene isn’t truly necessary to the plot, but I do think it deepens the story thematically.

    I’ve analyzed every scene in the novel, and that sex scene is the only scene that doesn’t meet all the tests for a necessary scene, but it scares me a bit because it might be my one remaining precious little darling. (It’s funny, and funny doesn’t come naturally to me.)

    Do you think my reasons for keeping it are strong enough?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a great approach to systematically approach every scene and consciously analyze its importance to the scene. The findings are surprising sometimes!

  2. I love the advice to eliminate a scene that doesn’t affect the overall story. I tend to write too much summary, so on edits I am always looking for those troublesome paragraphs. I’ll be keeping my eye out for them even more and slashing them if they don’t move the story forward and also relate to the story as a whole. Great advice, thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes we need to write those scenes for ourselves so we can figure everything out and keep it straight in our heads. But thankfully the good old delete button lets us go back and get rid of anything the *readers* don’t need.

  3. Great post, K.M. Thanks for sharing!

  4. In my next novella (novel?), as a result of Darby resuscitating a particular person with a particular background (spoilers, or I’d say more!), a close friend of hers kills someone close to both of them. The repercussions of everything sends Darby over the edge in guilt…and sets up the 3rd act of the story.

  5. GREAT post. I get so much from all your posts, but this one really struck me today and led me to tweak something. What more can we ask than that?

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    The entire premise of The Representative is a repercussion.

    (One of the best topics you’ve discussed.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This actually is a good way to think about any story. It’s not about what happened. It’s about what happens because something else happened.

  7. Steve Mathisensw says:

    This effectively raises the bar for each scene to drive the story forward with the consequences of the actions in the scene – either good or bad. Readers will stay interested and the tension drawing them and the characters toward the climax and conclusion stay strong.

    Thanks for bringing this up now. I needed to hear it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true. Honestly, it’s not the big events in stories that are so interesting in themselves as it is the characters’ reactions in their aftermath.

  8. I really hate it when the protag. kills someone and doesn’t give a wink about it. It feels so fake!!!!! In a story I read recently the protag. thought he had killed the antagonist, and he had nightmares about it for months afterwards. It was way more emotionally charged when the antagonist came out of hiding because the protagonist felt extreme relief mixed with a renewed resolve to beat her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly. If the character experiences no repercussions–even for a good decision–then, at the very least, we’re missing out on all kinds of story opportunities.

  9. M.J. Sparks says:

    I am in the throes of trying to flesh out a book. Essentially it is a tale of a young man who is questioning the validity of his faith, but finds it through an unlikely orc fellow who shows him that good truly does exist in the world and that the young man is capable of finding his faith and doing great things. I’m having a bit of trouble fleshing out the characters and outline (which I am currently reading about in your series of books that you gave for free and for sale recently. Thank you.) I enjoy reading your blog, it’s well written and not so far above my head that I continually have to look words up in the dictionary to understand. I have this world in my head and it desperately wants out, I need to get it out… and hopefully your books will help me figure out the best way for me to do that.

    Now to the important question: (sorry for the long post… )

    Is there ever a possibility where you may do the exact opposite of what you’re talking about and ruin the story as well? Couldn’t the opposite extreme cause essentially the same problem? Or could all this extraordinary strife a way to somehow make the character stronger? Or do you run the risk of making your character too whiny or weak-willed?

    The one character that comes to mind from my questioning is Frodo, from Tolkien. For me, while Frodo pretended to be strong, he showed much weakness and corrupted quickly to the Ring’s will. He carried so much burden, guilt, hate, fear, sympathy (after a good scolding from Gandalf) and various other emotions.

    That, to me, is a lot of repercussions for one person let alone a small hobbit who did not chose the adventure given to him. I mean, sure, he was able to make it through to the end because of the Fellowship. I seriously doubt he would have even made it to the Mountain of Fire without Samwise and the others keeping Sauron busy. I don’t think enough credit is given to Samwise, whom I feel is the true unsung hero of the story. Samwise was a character that touched me deeply. He is strong and wise and above all the kindest character in the series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As with just about anything in writing, we can definitely take this too far in the other direction (although I don’t know that Frodo’s necessarily a good example). We want to put our characters through the wringer, but not to the point that it becomes overwrought or melodramatic.

  10. It seems so obvious, yet I can understand how such shortcomings can take place. Some peoples’ heroes, as they right, can do no wrong in their own eyes. Some people get so attached – so sentimental – to what or who they have created that they feel (perhaps subconsciously) almost guilty(?) for inflicting such repercussions upon their precious character.

    The example you gave is a great way to sprinkle the seeds of subplots and develop additional aspects of the character. It’s such a waste to let that go.

    Having a hero who can do no wrong – whether literally in the narrative, or through omitted consequence as you describe – makes for a pretty flat character in my eyes. After hearing the example you just gave, I just want to take said character, write a side story featuring him, and tear his world apart just to see the (description of the) look on his face 😛

    I absolutely agree with you – it’s more about the repercussions, and how the character reacts to them rather than how he/she/they react to the event itself.

    • M.J. Sparks says:

      Yes, I definitely want my main character to make mistakes, be human and feel guilt, anger, remorse for the decisions he may or may not make. Feeling a constant battle of questioning his faith and all that. I definitely want him to be not perfect like the rest of us which makes him relatable.

      I’m just wondering if an extreme overuse of these repercussions could do an injustice to a character as much as a lack of them can do?

      Frodo was just the best example I could think of off the top of my head. He had so much turmoil, it almost seemed like it was too much at times for one character to bare. Fortunately he had friends who made him capable of achieving his goal. Without them, Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My sense, in this particular story, was that the author wrote the character into this situation, then realized the direction he *really* wanted to go with his story wouldn’t support the ramifications of murder. So he wrote it back out. Part of me was glad, because, frankly, I liked the character and didn’t want him to be a murderer. But, at the same time, the author had started out by having the guts to write something truly shocking–only to back out at the last minute.

  11. At its core, this is cause and effect. Domino reaction. And cause and effect is fundamentally what drives a story. Without cause and effect, all you have is a bunch of stuff that happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, exactly. Cause and effect is what keeps our stories from turning into a chain (if we can even call it that) of random events.

  12. K.M.–Great post. No consequences = no tension. And as you so succinctly put it, ask the same question of every scene: is it or is it not meaningful in relation to the whole story? I happen to favor maxims, and you’ve given your readers two very good ones–thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I tend to think the best stories are those that result from characters who are pushed to the brink. It’s not what happens to them that’s anywhere near as interesting as how they react to it. If we can take advantage of that in our stories, the whole experience becomes so much deeper.

  13. Random bits of everyday life invade a murder investigation. One such thing, and the protagonist’s reaction to it, becomes the key to solving the case.
    Great post. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love it when the character’s “personal” story gets intertwined with the external plot.

  14. Pam Portland says:

    I love that I’ve saved a couple of these key/relevant posts of yours until NaNoWriMo is almost here.

    When I was using the Character Arc development to plan out my coming work, I realized that my third plot point needed an overhaul. Now that I have an idea for it, this post reminds me how I need to spend some additional time working on the repercussions of the plot point on my characters. Thanks, again, for keeping me on task on this project!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is a great point. The best thing about plot points is what happens *after* them. The possibilities are always juicy.

  15. K.M has been a GREAT help for me while preping for NaNo too. Hope we both make the 50,000 words!

  16. Thanks!

  17. I know what story you’re talking about, and while I agree with you to an extent, I think letting him off is actually a foil to how deep his troubles go in the next book (and possibly the one after). And while I dislike the fact that he doesn’t reflect on the murder, he also has a well-developed disassociative defense mechanism, as evidenced by nearly thinking he IS his brother. Not saying it should be played off in that way for best story results, but at the same time, it’s a lot more excusable than it would be in most stories. I’m hoping that it comes to a point where he’s forced to face everything, including the murder.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      I don’t know the novel that’s in question, but I do have some thoughts myself based on what I’ve heard about it.

      Perhaps that was the point. The character not experiencing repercussions – perhaps that was conscientious, on the part of the author.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True. We don’t know (or I don’t, at any rate) where this may go in the next book. It would be fantastic if it plays out well in the long run. But for now it’s seems to me to be shaping up to be a cop out. I love this author, don’t get me wrong, but there were other instances of different aspects of this same issue happening in the book as well.

      • The next book(s) are quite good. I can’t remember if that event happened in the first of the series or the second, but there’s definitely hope. And yeah, that character gets off easy a LOT at first. 🙂

  18. “if you can pull any scene from your story without changing the overall plot, then that event probably isn’t important enough to the plot to stay in the book”

    Super true.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The sad part is that, often, these scenes are some of our darlings. But we can always keep them if we can *make* them pertinent.

  19. Just going to add that sometimes I find my best writing comes when the characters are just doing then. Of course then it becomes a problem of trying to connect these events to each other/create an actual story about these. Therefore I’m trying an experiment: no plot, just go in order and find out what happens. I expect it may not be finished, but it will be interesting to see what I learn on the way there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is something I like to experiment with in the outline. I can follow the characters around and let them do whatever they want and see where it’s going to lead – without needing to risk wasting time on a lengthy plot section that may end up going nowhere.

  20. This reminds me of a web comic I sort of follow. The artist is really great. Their plot has so much potential, but they are a) afraid to kill characters off (they seem dead but are found alive later) and their consequences aren’t always thought out.

    For instance early in the webcomic the antagonist tribe killed one of the main characters. The rest of the main characters either grieved quietly (not allowing us to see what was going on) and kept on as if nothing happened or they only grieved quickly and then seemed to “forget”. The story makes the antagonists more a product of their upbringing and the protagonists more reactive than taking charge for their actions.

    There were a number of missed opportunities that I think could have made the plot far better:

    The main characters went home to speak about what they found to their elders (who defeated many nasty, worse antagonists in the previous arc) but rather than tell them what happened, they lied, said the killed character died in an accident. This prevented the elders from attacking the antagonist and seeing how that would play out. This also prevented us from seeing what happens with the “father has a demon inside him” story arc from the previous comic.

    That issue got brought up by several readers. The answer: That’s the character’s flaw to lie. Sure the lie split up relationship with the liar and her mate, but we don’t know if that is a long term thing or short term. Because most of the plot after didn’t involve their grief, it didn’t have the emotional impact that could have been.

    The antagonists that killed the main character got killed eventually, but not in a way the protagonists are aware. Protagonist 1 who is in the enemy camp (eventually becomes their leader) did not get aware of the loss of her friend (until well after those responsible have died already). She eventually finds out and grieved, but we miss seeing what if she did know. That could have lead to an interesting dynamic, since she’d be forced to confront her tribe members and face her timid nature to dole out a consequence.

    At least some helpful suggestions from the readers helped, I believe. She banishes her ex-mate who is responsible, but the emotional weight is weakened because she already hates the man anyway. She might have banished him for other reasons.

    Protagonist 2 is aware of his friend’s murder but does not know that the ones responsible are dead. Another missed opportunity. We are hoping he has a confrontation with her ex mate, but that is still a question. Conflicts seem to be resolved quickly and we don’t see the consequences right away or they get dampened by quick forgiveness, false deaths, or just nothing happens.

    What makes it worse is when you see these things and know they are a good writer and artist. You want to help them by bringing up these concerns. You know their comic would be awesome if they consider this, but rather than take the constructive criticism, they get hurt, upset, think they are being attacked and then close off comments. It makes me sad as the reader.

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