Killing Your Darlings: Cutting Scenes from Your Novel
For Books that Hook
by Brooke Johnson
Cutting a scene from a novel is no easy task, but sometimes, for the sake of word count, pacing, or other reasons, some scenes inevitably head off to the chopping block. But how do you know which scenes should stay and which scenes should go?
I follow a pretty straightforward metric for determining the value of a scene when I’m revising a novel. (You can also use this method when outlining to help you cut extraneous scenes before you ever sit down to write them. Highly recommended for plotters!)
At the most basic level, you want to figure out the point of the scene in question, in the context of the rest of the story, and there are three different ways to determine that:
1. Does the scene move the plot forward?
2. Does the scene develop the characters further?
3. Does the scene reveal important information?
The first two are the most important (with the third closely related to both), but ideally, a well-rounded, compelling scene will accomplish all three. So how do you know if your scene meets these requirements? Let’s look at each one in more detail.
Does the scene move the plot forward?
At the beginning of the story, your characters have a goal they must accomplish before the story can satisfactorily end. In relation to that, does the scene you’re thinking about cutting put your characters closer to that goal or further away from it? If so, congratulations; you’re on the right track.
Your characters should always be in a state of flux in relation to the plot, riding through the story on a roller coaster of success and failures. The thing you want to avoid is stagnation. There’s no conflict if you keep the status quo, without any forward or backward movement. So if at the end of the scene, the characters are no better or worse than at the beginning of the scene, either you want to revise the scene to address that, or cut it altogether.
This also applies to subplots (and if you can forward the main plot and a subplot or two in a single scene, excellent! But sometimes it’s an either/or thing. You might address the main plot in one scene, and a subplot or two in another scene. This is okay.).
Does the scene develop the characters further?
Over the course of a story, as the plot progresses forward, so should your characters. The same rules for plot progression apply here, though character progression may be less obvious with each individual scene and more noticeable over the course of the entire book. This could be changing their perspective about something, showing a new side to the character that we haven’t seen before, making an unexpected decision based on new information—any shift in personality, behavior, logic, or outlook.
Examples: A brash character becomes more reserved. A shy character becomes more outgoing. Two characters who hate each other come to an agreement. Two characters who normally get along get into an argument.
Not every scene is going to accomplish sweeping character development, but it’s worth trying to push the characters toward change in some fashion. People change slowly over time, so your fiction should reflect that.
Does the scene reveal important information?
This one is tied closely to the other two points, because more often than not, the important information revealed within a scene furthers the plot or the characters at the same time, but not always! Sometimes, the plot has progressed as far as it can without new information to propel the characters closer to (or further away from) their goal. Sometimes, characters remain stubbornly stationary until presented with new information to make them change their perspectives or goals. In these cases, a scene maintains the status quo until the last moment, when something new comes to light and changes everything. This is usually what causes a scene to end in a cliffhanger, and in that case, it’s often the new information at the end of one scene that propels change in the next scene.
However, these revelations should be related to plot or character in some way in order to stay relevant to the story goal. While you may find some informational tidbit interesting, if it doesn’t directly affect the plot or the characters, then it isn’t relevant and needs to be removed or revised.
Other examples of important information you might use include character introductions, backstory, history, foreshadowing, news, unexpected discoveries, and life-changing events, but you need to be careful not to rely only on the revelation of new information to carry a scene. Otherwise, you may end up with the dreaded “info dump”, so try to combine your information-heavy scenes with plot or character progression for greater effect.
Just remember, the new information should elicit change. If the information revealed doesn’t change anything as a result, it’s not significant enough to carry a scene and should be cut.
So what happens if a scene doesn’t do one of these things?
A good, well-rounded scene will accomplish all three goals: plot progression, character development, and new information. But not all scenes will. Some scenes may move the plot forward, but not the characters. Some scenes may develop the characters better, but fail to move the plot. Some scenes will further two subplots and reveal a big thing about one of the characters’ pasts, but neither the main plot or the characters themselves change in any big way. That’s okay, too.
Now, if you come across a scene that fails to move the plot forward, fails to develop your characters, and does not hold any pertinent information to the story as a whole, then it needs to go. You may love the scene! You may have some brilliant writing and fantastic ideas buried in there! That’s great! Take that scene and save it in a separate file so that you don’t lose it, and maybe you can reuse a version of it in another story. Or maybe you can cannibalize your favorite sentences and add them back into another scene.
Don’t be afraid to combine two or more scenes to make a stronger one!
Most importantly, every scene should end differently than it began.
Scenes are about movement and change. Whether that means literally moving the characters from one place to another, causing an emotional shift in the story, giving characters an item or information they didn’t have before, or taking something away, a good scene will always change the status quo. If a scene in your novel fails that, then you need to reassess and revise, or remove the scene altogether.
In the end, it will make for a much better story.