Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 40: Unnecessary Scenes

What is a story but scenes? Put one scene after another–and you have a story! Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Those scenes have to hang together in a way that makes sense. They have to create a contiguous arc. Every one of those scenes needs to be integral to that arc. If a scene isn’t integral, then it doesn’t belong in the story. As we’re going to find out in this one of our common writing mistakes, it’s just as simple as that.

And just as hard. Because sometimes writers can’t see the forest for the trees. When you’re writing along, creating as you go, it can be difficult to realize when you’ve just written a scene that doesn’t matter to your story. It can be even harder when you’ve written a scene you know isn’t 100% essential, but you can’t bear to cut it because it’s so darn fun! Surely, a scene like that can get a free pass and stay in the story. What’s it going hurt, right? Turns out it might hurt your entire book.

4 Types of Unnecessary Scenes

Compared to movies, plays, and short stories, books are sprawling beasts. That means they can’t help but be a little “looser” than their more uptight media pals. The good news in that revelation is that the sheer bigness of novels gives writers a little more room for error. If you write one little extraneous scene, it’s probably not going to kill your book.

But the bad news is that all this sprawl means it’s much easier for us to fail to identify the unnecessary scenes, especially since we’re so close to (and un-objective about) our stories. Ultimately, the type of scenes that are unnecessary to your story will be completely unique depending on your characters and your plot. But here are four types of scene that are frequent culprits:

1. Minor Character Relationships

Minor characters often turn out to be some of the most fun people to to write in any story. It can be tempting to explore them in ways that aren’t actually necessary in moving the plot forward. This isn’t to say minor character relationships (both with the protagonist and amongst themselves) aren’t often important, necessary, and awesome ways to layer the plot and the themes. But they also can run away with us when we’re not looking. I find this to be especially true of romantic relationships. If you’ve got a flirtation budding between minors–or between the protag and a minor character, look at it extra hard to make sure it’s important and not just something you’re having fun with.

2. Point-A-to-Point-B Filler

Whenever you switch settings or jump time in your story, you’re usually going to have to account for what happened between Point A and Point B, if only to avoid disorienting readers. But don’t get sucked into dramatizing (showing) actions that don’t actually matter to the story. Your character’s time riding the subway to Grandma’s house doesn’t need to be dramatized. Chances are, it may not even need to be referenced. Although novels inevitably do need to fill in more blanks than movies, novelists can take some lessons from screenplays, which usually cut between settings and time gaps without any explanation. Readers catch on faster you think.

3. Old Ground Re-Covered

Avoid repetition like the Ebola virus. You will hardly ever need to dramatize a conversation in which characters repeat themselves or recount events  the readers have already witnessed. Court scenes, newspaper interviews, reports to superiors, and even just conversations with previously absent characters are frequent culprits.

4. Research Dumps

A while back, I read a novel in which the main character was selling a coin collection. The coins themselves weren’t particularly pertinent to the plot, and yet scene after scene focused on the details of the coin-buying business. Every single one of these scenes could have been cut without affecting the plot. There’s nothing wrong with using information like this to bring color and realism to a scene, but the scene itself should never be about the information–unless, of course, it’s actually driving the plot.

What Unnecessary Scenes Do to Your Story

Before we identify a few important tricks for actually discovering all this deadweight in your story, let’s first consider why you should even bother tracking down these sneaky little freeloaders.

Unnecessary scenes will…

1. Bore Readers

Readers are laser-focused. Unlike us, they aren’t automatically in love with this story. They don’t want to watch these characters read from the phone book. They don’t want to read about stuff that doesn’t matter. They want the good stuff, and they want it right now. When your characters spend scene after scene talking about their coin collections, readers are likely to start skipping ahead.

2. Mislead Readers

Unlike you, readers don’t know where your story is headed. In some instances, they won’t be bored by your unnecessary scenes because they don’t know what they’re reading is unnecessary. They’re reading all this with intent fascination, storing away the information because they believe it will all turn out to be important later on. When the foreshadowing doesn’t pan out, they’re going to be left confused (and probably mad) because they’re still holding onto clues that really weren’t clues at all.

3. Derail the Plot

Let’s say you’re writing a political thriller, but you find yourself writing scene after scene about your protagonist’s crush on a reporter. That could work out just ducky, especially if the reporter turns out to be a key player in averting the political assassination at the heart of your story. But if she’s just a sideline character who never does much to affect the actual plot, then her role in the story is not only misleading readers, it’s also derailing the plot’s focus. Is this a political thriller or a romance? Readers won’t know, because neither do you.

4. Fragment the Story

The best stories are cohesive wholes. All their parts hang together in a way that makes perfect sense. When a story contains unnecessary scenes, those scenes are going to stick out from the rest of the story like pulled threads in a tapestry. It ruins the overall effect and may destroy whatever cohesion is maintained by the parts that actually are necessary.

3 Ways to Double-Check That All Your Scenes Matter to Your Story

Okay, sure, got it: unnecessary scenes are bad. But how can you definitively identify and eliminate these little stinkers? The first step is to go through your manuscript scene by scene and deliberately analyse each of them. You have to do this consciously. It’s not enough just to put this information in the back of your head and wait until a problematic scene jumps out you. You must look at each scene in turn and double-check its necessity to the story.

1. Mentally Delete the Scene

Take a look at each scene and visualize your manuscript without it. If you deleted this entire scene, what would happen to the rest of the story? Would the plot progression still make sense? Would the characters’ development be cohesive? Would the characters’ relationships still evolve naturally? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then stop visualizing the deletion and actually do it. If there’s only one or two important elements in a scene, then consider how you might sow these elements into more intrinsic scenes, so you can go ahead and delete this one.

2. Sweep for Darlings

Very often, unnecessary scenes wangle their way into our stories just because there’s something about them that we adore. In short, they’re our “darlings.” Look through your story, scene by scene, and evaluate how much you love each one. The more you love it, the more you should scrutinize it to make sure your own emotions aren’t getting in the way of your logical evaluation. Ask yourself the same questions as in the previous step. If the story can survive without any particular darling, get ruthless with yourself and chop it.

3. Check the Scene Structure

Finally, the single best way to identify an unnecessary scene is to pay attention to your scene structure. When a story is working properly, with no extraneous parts, every single scene will build into the next scene. Remember scenes are broken into two parts: action (scene) and reaction (sequel). Each of these is, in turn, made up of three more parts:

Scene (Action)

1. Goal

2. Conflict

3. Disaster

Sequel (Reaction)

1. Reaction

2. Dilemma

3. Decision

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Whenever a scene is missing one of these parts, you know something is amiss. For the complete primer on scene structure, check out my book Structuring Your Novel.

Take a look at your novel. Look past the surface and dig down to the nitty-gritty of the scene level. Whenever you find a loose end, follow it to its source and ruthlessly cut it out. Do this consistently and you will create a solid novel with no unnecessary scenes. Readers won’t be able to look away!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion: Have you had to cut any unnecessary scenes from your story lately? How did you know they were unnecessary? Leave a comment!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 40: Unnecessary Scenes

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hi K.M.

    Great post. I like your point about mentally deleting the scene. If it doesn’t somehow support the central story question and further the plot, then it probably doesn’t belong, so get rid of it.

    I’d like your opinion on how important word count is to a properly told story versus a marketable one. My debut novel was 115K and comments were that it was a great story but too long. The situation I’m in right now is I have another crime thriller coming in at 68K and the agent I’m in discussion with wants to see 80K. I’m now finding that I’m writing-in peripheral junk and thinking of adding extra characters just to fill up white space.

    Thoughts, anyone?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A story always has to be just as long as it needs to be. Some stories need to be longer than others. However, word count definitely will be a consideration if you’re submitting to agents. Longer books are frowned upon simply because they’re more expensive to produce. Simply from a storytelling perspective, however, length isn’t a consideration in and of itself. Rather, the question is, “Is the story as long as *needs* to be?”

    • Louis Wilberger says

      If you have to beef up your word count, do it by introducing more complications and twists. Take it slow and think it through. You can always find a little gasoline to throw on the fire.

  2. I am writing an epistolary novel – I’m always cutting letters for the above reasons. Recently I found I had four letters repeating the same thing. One letter from my boy protagonist asking for information from his estranged aunt , a letter from the aunt to the boys father asking for advice and by necessity repeating the information, a letter from the father to the aunt and finally two more letters – one from the father and one the aunt to the boy… That’s five I think… nightmare. Got it down to two in the end with no repetition!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! And I bet it made the two remaining letters all the most interesting.

  3. Wow, this subject could be a book. You could call it: “Working with an Editor.” That’s where the tears starts flowing, in my experience. But it sure feels good when scenes are yanked or a character is axed and you suddenly realize how much more smoothly the story reads. Thanks, KMW.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally! Cutting is always painful, but it’s like pulling a splinter – afterwards, it always feels so much better.

  4. I write so sparsely, sometimes to a fault, I rarely have this problem. I must say I just read (well, I’m stuck at the 90% point) a story that takes so many tangents off the main plot as to (a) frustrate the heck out of me and (b) prove that the main of is too thin to support a full novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Tight writing is a good thing. Writing tight and filling in the blanks later is, I find, almost always easier (although probably also less fun) than writing wildly and then having pare back later on in revisions.

  5. Louis Wilberger says

    AKA fluff scenes and dialogue cut 5000 words. Info scenes that weren’t necessary 2000 words, Trim down to comply with profitable paperback format 3000 and counting. These cuts are recommended by the man who will publish my book. One thing I’ve found. If you are trying and your story has potential, sometimes– just sometimes you’ll get help.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A story needs to be as long as it needs to be – but, more often than not, I’ve definitely found that stories can be shorter than we initially think they need to be.

  6. Qondomon says

    Truly enlightening! And finally I got the feeling of to think about something of my book and K.M.Weiland make a post about it!

    Sometimes, the scene is so good (good structure, I mean) but as my example, the word count is too big and something has to be cut.

    And, like you said, by cutting this scene, the plot and the characters remain cohesive and nothing change (there is a less long and unnecessary way to do the change).

    until next post!
    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I never like having to edit to diminish word count. But there is something incredibly satisfying in tightening and streamlining a novel to its optimal fighting weight.

      • Jebraun Clifford says

        Love the optimal fighting weight analogy. I just discovered your site and, wow! Reading as fast as I can, and alternating between joy and despair at my first draft of my first WIP. So many mistakes! Extraneous scenes is just one of them, but a biggie. My manuscript is bloated with with unnecessary characters, scenes, conversations. Yikes! Enter big sigh of relief that I’ve got a place to turn to for some much-needed help.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, extraneous scenes can actually a blessing when the book is overweight! Makes it so much less painful to bring it down to a reasonable word count.

  7. I actually have the opposite problem, and my editor ‘beats’ me for it often: I leave too much out and have to go back in and connect the A’s to the B’s. Now that I’ve memorized the questions that she asks me over and over again, as I write a scene, I can almost hear her in my head, making sure I’ve included all the pertinent information so I don’t confuse the reader.

    But, I have been tempted to chase a minor character down the rabbit hole just because it could be fun.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s worth chasing those minor characters. Never know where they’ll lead you – and you can always cut the scenes later if they turn out not to work.

  8. I know that in my first novel I got too repetitive where every concert I wrote about the characters crossing over the bridge, having a pre concert party and getting searched before going in. I realise my mistake. After reading this, I now have stopped second guessing myself for not including a scene in my second novel as I now know it wouldn’t have made any difference but it would have only been put there for my own amusement.
    However there is a part where after the protagonist shoots up the school, a set of rosary beads are found by the body of winning of the victims. Although the beads don’t belong to the victim, it doesn’t stop the parents taking them and going on religious revivals telling the story of how their child was praying to Jesus when she got shot. Most people found this part relevant but were quick to brand the parents attention seekers and had me patting myself on the back for it. Then one reader said that while reading that part, she wanted to say to that family, “Get out of the story, this isn’t about you!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as these characters aren’t detracting from the main story (but rather advancing it), that’s the important thing. If you get another beta who says the same thing, that’s the time to look at the questionable element extra hard.

  9. Hi K.M.
    Always difficult to take the scalpel to text, but using the principles you outline can really help, thanks

    I’m at the edit stage of a YA novel, Shadows of the Second Sun, and struggled with how long it took to actually get into the story. The hero, Luke, is an orphan and I so wanted to tell his full story that it took me almost 30 pages. And this at the beginning of the story…

    In the end I started ‘his’ story at the age of 17, coming in just after a major life event. As the story progressed having his story fully told was really useful for later engagement with other characters or challenges such as when he had to face the Warlords of Zörth.

    Having read this blog think I have more work to do, but looking forward to what emerges

    Thanks

    Declan

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A good rule of thumb is to start your story as late as you possibly can. If you can cut the backstory and save it to create subtext and even mystery in the main story, you’ll almost always get more bang for your buck.

  10. This post is timely for me. Yesterday I was reading through my ms trying to decide what to cut and what to keep. Alas, it IS so difficult to carve away those fun scenes, those darlings. So, I c/p them to a file with my other darlings, just in case I can’t let go of them. At least I feel better I still have the scenes close at hand. I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t keep them, but afterall, they are my darlings! Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, I feel it’s a great idea to keep deleted scenes in a special folder. You never know what you may want to put back in later, and, at the least, keeping them someplace makes deleting them from the manuscript a little bit easier.

  11. Louis Wilberger says

    You have no doubt read Dwight Swain. I wonder if you could comment on starting a novel with a defining event before jumping into the main. In mine, I show the MCs Brother collapsing and being hauled off to the hospital. then a break *** Then his sister, the MC gets a call but when she get to the hospital the brother is gone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love Swain, but I actually don’t remember how he distinguishes between the defining and main event. If you’d jog my memory, maybe I can be of more help.

  12. Louis Wilberger says

    Swain was talking about using an outside incident as a hook and how important it is to keep everything relevant to the main story. On another interesting note.
    This snippet from Dwight Swain, got me to wondering if you’d done anything on bones of contention.
    The paper clip lay on the desk between them. It was an old clip-discolored, somewhat bent, with a couple of small rust spots on it.
    Idly, Olivas reached for it,
    In a voice dangerously gentle Sheehan said, “Touch it, you son of a bitch, and I’ll cut your throat.
    What a way to establish a relationship.

  13. Hi K.M. , you are super generous with your knowledge. Your articles and examples are very helpful. I have two of your writing craft books “in queue” to be read. Looking forward to them. God bless.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, D.L.! Awesome to hear that you’re finding the blog useful. I hope you enjoy the books as well!

  14. Great point. When I’m editing my book I always look at each scene and ask: What’s the point?

    If I’ve got a good answer, then it stays. If I’m struggling with the answer, then I look at deleting it. Sometimes, I’m good at rationalizing though. 😉

    • One thing that drives me crazy are chase scenes in tv shows / movies. That or scenes like, he gets out of his car and puts his his keys on the counter. He takes his coat off…
      *skip, skip, skip* My shows become quite pared down. 😀

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Unless actions like these are doing something for characterization (or possibly pacing), they’re likely just the author clearing his throat as he figures out what he *really* wants the character to do. You’re right: delete ’em!

  15. Louis Wilberger says

    Love the Time line charts. Where can I get 2&3

  16. 10 years ago, I began my current WIP thinking it would be a stand alone novel.
    3 years later, I had an almost 200,000 word behemoth that had plenty of plot driven stuff but very little meat beyond that.
    1 year after that, I had the revelation that the three parts of the novel could be their own books in a series. And the secondary more daunting task of beefing the story up, and have pretty much been on the path of conquering that initial screw up since. Ive been in the revision process since…September last year on what is finally a solid draft, and have been a nervous wreck about cutting, cutting, cutting, because I spent so many years adding, adding, adding. Your previous post about “subtext” eased my mind about all the changes I’ve made, and I THINK I finally hunted down the last unnecessary bugger in the novel. It was a chapter featuring a minor character, putting a bow on how his arc ties to the plot. My solution was merging what I LOVED and felt was absolutely necessary about that scene into a different moment in an earlier chapter with double the impact.

    *crosses fingers*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There is a fine balance between too much “stuff” and not enough in a book, but I tend to like to see authors walk just a little bit on the side of “not enough.” Let that subtext have a chance to shine! Good job on figuring that out.

  17. There’s one scene I have this nervous feeling I might have to cut. It’s near the beginning, before the Inciting Event, and helps, I feel (or I delude myself, we’ll see) establish a few important aspects of the main character. Until then we’ve found out he talks a lot, is generally cheerful, and interested in odd things. Here I establish he’s something of a mad genius, which becomes important later on, and (if I’m doing this right) gives some insight into his underlying insecurity and the fears that drive him. The actual actions, though, are not particularly relevant to the plot (MC2 finds out he’s created a sentient steamer trunk.)
    I have another scene that I like that’s relevant to the metaplot of the 3-novel series, but is not immediately relevant to the plot of Book 1. It also establishes a few things about our mad genius. I have this sinking feeling I may have to rewrite it to tie in somehow to the plot of Book 1, even though it’s before the Inciting Event as well. I just have no idea how!
    As useful as I find your posts, sometimes they scare the bejeesus out of me… 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When you find scenes about which you’re unsure of their necessity to the story, it’s always great if you can see if you can find a way to combine its events with other scenes to up the ante and create a replacement scene that is multiple times more important and interesting.

  18. Kassidy Nance says

    This was very helpful! On several occasions, I’ve deleted whole chapters because of their uselessness. It delayed the action of the story incredibly. If there was a small piece of important information in the deleted chapter, I would either sum it up in the previous or following chapter or take out anything that referred to in later in the story. This usually helped speed up the action of the book. Though, sometimes, I have written an entire story on top of an unneeded scene, in which being removed made the entire novel crumble. I’ve learned to stop derailing from the main conflict, and my manuscripts are now noticeably smoother.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with a well-planned subplot, of course, but you’re right: everything has to move the main conflict forward. Otherwise, it’s going to belong in a different story–or the delete folder.

  19. Benjamin says

    Regarding the “darlings” advice, I’d add that we could also ask ourselves why is it that we like those scenes so much, and try to transplant what makes them our “darlings” to another scene, perhaps one scene that we feel may be important but may lack something, and that the darling could improve with, perhaps, character development or interaction or story evolution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point. There’s not a thing in the world wrong with darlings – if they work within the story.

  20. Yesterday whilst editing the first draft of my novel I realised a chapter could be deleted, moved onto the next chapter and realised that could be deleted too and then panic set in. I usual enjoy getting rid of poor/unnecessary material, but suddenly it seemed as though I was starting to delete my whole book! Thankfully I found your website and quickly relaxed. Both chapters were old ground recovered and filler scenes. It was fine, they were supposed to be deleted. I can now move on slashing and burning with confidence and I have a place to come when doubt sets in again. Thank you for all the great advice on your website, it was just what I needed to not lose faith in my book and has given me inspiration to continue.

  21. Kat Laytham says

    In regards to a scene misleading the reader (or, in this case, the viewer), I just watched JURASSIC WORLD (not a major Plot Spoiler ahead but still…)

    One of the child protagonists told his older brother that he saw the mail and their parents have consulted divorce lawyers. I kept waiting and waiting for it to be relevant to something, or to be brought up again (at least in the resolution), but it was never mentioned again. So, at the end while everyone else was raving about the dinosaurs, I’m saying, “What about the divorce??”

    I think they may have added the scene to bring the bickering brothers closer, but they did that much more effectively in other action scenes.

  22. Yup, I’ve had to do this very thing just recently, carving out the Draft Three for my current w-i-p. Apart from cutting out ALL the scenes written from a secondary POV (turns out he wasn’t ‘foreshadowing’ and ‘adding tension’ after all, but ‘plot-spoiling’ and ‘saying in techno-speak what the primary POV character has just said in normal-speak’) I also had to cut a scene where another main character suddenly showcased a cool super-ability… that’s never referred to ever again and isn’t even that useful out in the real world, to be honest. I’ve had to give them both cake and give them lots of pep talks as a result, but I’m sure they’ll get over it eventually. For art! and all that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re nicer to my characters. Mine never get cake when they get their scenes cut. But that’s smart. Maybe that will make them more cooperative when they get a shot at showing up in the sequel!

  23. I ended up doing this with half a chapter, (4. Fragmented the Story) after I did that and more or less we wrote that chapter, that ‘bump’ went away on the story’s loose ends started to tie together again. ^-^ I loved that scene for over a year before I saw how stupidly out of place it was. I think that’s why I kept getting stuck on writing a new chapter too. So thanks for this. ^-^

  24. I think this probably happens more frequently with pantsers. I’m writing my first fiction book but I planned the whole story in advance and wrote out a list of plot points which are basically one per chapter or so. So I know what all is going to be in the story before I even write it.

  25. James Butler says

    I’ve been reading through these mistakes and its hard to disagree with them. Maybe I’m missing something, but, you seem to be saying; delete, cut, chop a lot. We have written this 100,000 word manuscript and deleted half the book by the time we are done deleting these ‘book killing mistakes’. Do we just publish it like that, as a smaller book, or should we refill this data with more relevant story? How do we make more relevant story that drives the plot when our plot is already driven and closed?

    Maybe I just shouldn’t read so many mistake articles back to back…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s hard to say. For some stories, the smaller version may be exactly right. More often though, there will need to be fleshing out in other areas. For example, a common mistake is too much “telling”; replacing it with “showing” usually increases the word count dramatically.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland not only explains why unnecessary scenes are bad for your readers, but she also discusses the various types of unnecessary scenes and how to identify them so you can […]

  2. […] Unnecessary Scenes – an interesting post from K M Weiland on how to spot –and then CULL – scenes that don’t matter. I am guilty of each and every one of these… […]

  3. […] * Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 40: Unnecessary Scenes […]

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  6. […] This writing advice comes from K. M. Weiland, over at Helping Writers Become Authors: […]

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