Does This Scene Deserve a Place in Your Story? 2 Ways to Find Out

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Guest post by K.M. Weiland

“Cut this scene. It doesn’t move the plot.”

That is my most frequent comment on manuscripts I edit for others. It causes most writers to groan. Not only am I telling you to cut your beloved scenes (perhaps even your favorite), but you’re left to figure out why these scenes are extraneous—and then either fix or replace them.

Bill Buchanan emailed me:

Could you tell me how to evaluate the relative value of any scene in my novel?

Sol Stein’s book On Writing says:

“…I found it desirable to set a standard. If any scene falls below that standard, out it goes. The process stops when the remaining scenes all seem to contribute strongly to the work as a whole.”

Stein didn’t describe his scene evaluation standard, so don’t worry if you don’t have an answer for this. If it was easy, Sol Stein would’ve explained it!

Fortunately, I do have an answer. Once you understand the twofold essence of a powerful scene, you will instinctively reject subpar scenes and replace them with memorable and powerful alternatives.

2 Questions You Must Ask About Every Scene

Be brutally honest with yourself. Some of your favorite scenes may deserve a resounding No to both questions. The good news is that you have not only identified a major way to improve your manuscript, but you have also opened a clear path to correcting the problems.

1. Is this scene pertinent to the plot?

Every scene should help you create a cohesive and resonant whole. Any scene—however fabulous in its own right—that does not contribute to the plot, theme, and character arc will prove discordant and distracting.

Does this scene move the plot? Every scene must create a sense of motion. It must change the story. If your characters have not moved closer to their respective goals by the end of the scene, you’re looking at a static tableau.

If you’re unsure, pretend you whacked the scene altogether. Would the story continue without a hitch? Might it be even faster-paced and more focused? Or would the loss leave readers confused?

Sometimes a scene can ace the above requirements and still not be the best for your story. Don’t write scenes that just scrape by. Write scenes that explode off the page, moving the plot by leaps and bounds, affecting not just one element of your story, but as many as possible.

Not every less-than-functional scene has to be deleted. Often, its worthwhile elements can be salvaged by folding them in with the best parts of another mediocre scene. The best parts of two can result in one dynamite scene.

2. Is this scene interesting?

It’s not enough for a scene to be functional. It must also be fascinating.

A scene can work on every level and still be one readers have read a hundred times before. What about this particular scene will make readers pay attention? Look for ways to pique curiosity and create conflict, that tension that keeps readers turning the pages.

One of the surest signs your readers will be bored is that you’re bored while writing. Force yourself to stop and consider why. If the events don’t excite you or challenge you, it’s probably because your characters are going nowhere. Passive characters result in boring scenes. Be sure your character has a scene goal, something to move toward in this scene—and then complicate his progress by introducing obstacles (conflict).

Think Outside the Box

Another frequent cause of boring scenes is a lack of character interaction. Instantly pep up any scene by giving your protagonist someone to talk to—and, preferably, disagree with.

Don’t settle for letting your characters follow the obvious path from Point A to Point B. What would be unexpected? What are your minor characters’ driving needs in this scene? What new setting could might ratchet up the conflict or offer resonant symbolism?

When readers look back on the stories they love the most, specific scenes come to their minds. Ask yourself these two crucial questions, and fill your book with as many amazing and memorable scenes as possible.

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally award-winning author of Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Tell me in the comments what you found most helpful in K.M.’s post, and what you’ll do this week to improve your scene writing.

  • Excellent info. I cut/slashed/destroyed some – er – most of my favorite scenes. I won’t tell you how that improved my word count to reasonable. To slash or not to slash. I am working a new WIP that … put … me … to sleep.

    Out it goes!

    • K.M. Weiland

      As someone who also tends to write too-long word counts, I completely understand. ;)

      • Hi KM

        I sent my MS to a beta group. They liked it, but said, what’s the genre? Pick one main one, and one subplot.

        I thought, well duh, Christian romance & crime (suspense). BUT I’d done so much research into forensics, had a bazillion little pcs of ‘CSI’ type stuff, that I tossed the scenes– but one (to show the MC’s prowess with a scalpel and dead body… something the ME was surprised she was better than him).

        It does come up a bit later–was the dead guy part of the suspense/crime? Did she admit (after being shot…) under anesthesia (to the romantic interest) that she could do an autopsy in her sleep? So, I left one. I took out the seriously gruesome aspects of a body farm research conference… LOL. I cut the surgical scene, too.

        argh.

        My new WIP is too short… and full of plot holes. I feel like I am putting out fires left and right to make it readable, fluff up characters etc. *Nanowrimo* -not sure I will do that again, my WIP’s first draft is ugly as sin.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Most first drafts are. I’ll let K.M. weigh in here, but what did your beta group mean about picking one main genre and one subplot? Those are apples and oranges.

          • Yes, they are apples/oranges. They commented too much was going on, and the main plot obscured by stuff, and no one knew–genre: is this a crime novel? A romance? A suspense? Mystery? It’s truly a Christian romance with suspense. I cut out a huge Christmas scene. It had very little to do with the subplot. Some on the romance–which I boiled the romance section to a few sentences when she ‘remembers’ the Christmas party. I didn’t/couldn’t cut her coming to Christ, it was part of the love interest’s plan, salvation wasn’t part of the plan (x by God). It isn’t raised x for a few times, a wee bit of scripture here and there. The subplot mirrors her life–the suspense. My original word count? 140,000 words. Bloated beyond belief.

        • K.M. Weiland

          If you’ve cut the fluff to get down to a solid structural skeleton, you can then look into expanding the word count in a couple ways:

          1. Developing meaningful subplots that expound on your theme.
          2. Deepening your protagonist’s relationship scenes with various characters.
          3. Double-checking that your scene structure (goal/conflict/disaster/reaction/dilemma/decision) is all in place, particularly the reaction halves.

          • Hi KM

            the first novel I cut like… 40,000 words… LOLOL. It’s in a good place now (with an agent). My second one is the one I think you are referring to/ I wrote rapidly, now need to fix the plotholes, subtract the unneeded words, and give it more setting. The characters as I go thru, are beginning to take better shape. Quirky folk that they are in their conflicts.

  • marissa

    Thanks, this explains why certain scenes I have summarized in my out outline bore me. I have not written my new novel manuscript yet but this saves me a lot of trouble when I start actually writing the scenes

    • K.M. Weiland

      My rule of thumb is: if I’m bored, it’s gone. It’s a very liberating approach. ;)

  • Dave Fessenden

    If a scene can be cut and the reader will not know it’s gone, it never should have been there in the first place. Every time I write a scene, I have a clear purpose for it in the back of my mind. Of course, that probably comes from being a plotter — outlining the book before I’ve written the scenes. And I’m probably a plotter because I’m a mystery writer. I’m not sure how you can be a “pantser” and write mysteries — too much planning needed. Maybe it can be done, but I couldn’t do it!

    • K.M. Weiland

      I agree. If it’s not bringing something to the table, what’s the point? Readers won’t miss it if it’s gone, and they might well regret it if it isn’t!

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have read some of Ms Weiland’s books and receive her newsletter. I’m excited to put her suggestions here to use. I have a tendency to write, write with no thought as to the scene and if they work or not, I just think they need to be there, but in light of this post, I will be looking at my stories with these questions in mind. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Thanks for reading! It’s actually be interesting for me to re-read a previous novel, in which I didn’t know any of this and used the “write, write, write” method. It turned out pretty good in the end, but I have to grin a little in remembering how hard that book was to write in comparison to those now that I understand what atually qualifies as a good scene.

  • K.M. Weiland

    Thanks so much for having me today, Jerry!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You were great, and thanks so much for interacting with our members who have commented.

  • Karen Crider

    I have been taught that if a scene does not define character, advance plot, provide entertainment,–if it is boring as sin, does not lend meaning or interest, strangle it. I love to do this. Cutting lends control and I like that. Perhaps it is the only area of my life where that is permitted. LOL.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Sin’s not usually that boring. ;)

  • Kathy Kidder

    Ms. Weiland, this article was definitely another that I needed to read today!
    ” Every scene must create a sense of motion. It must change the story. If your characters have not moved closer to their respective goals by the end of the scene, you’re looking at a static tableau.”
    I run into a unique (to me) situation with the writing and QC editing I do for a client on an animated video project. I have to review the storyboard drawn by the art dept to support the script I edit & co-write. Some time the artists draw panels that are totally irrelevant and unnecessary to the script, or add so many details that it distracts from the intended scene. Your article supports cutting those panels, even when the artist is in love with them. Interestingly enough, this is a reminder of how much it hurts my “creative ego” to be fearless in slashing my written scenes too. Thanks for keeping it real!

    • K.M. Weiland

      What a need project! I’m sure it brings an entirely new perspective to the writing as well.

      • Kathy Kidder

        Yes, it sure does. It will be good to get back to my own writing though.

  • Honey Halley

    “Write scenes that explode off the page — affecting not just one element of the story but as many as possible.” Thank you Ms. Weiland. This is sure to improve my writing and will be a lesson I’m sure to remember for the entirety of my writing career. I appreciate you sharing your insight and expertise.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Glad the post was useful! :) For me, this is what takes the whole writing experience up a notch. It’s permission to have as much fun as possible.

  • Peggy Engbrecht House

    The advice that resonated the most with me … “giving your protagonist someone to talk to—and, preferably, disagree with.” Reminds me of the old adage- if two people agree on everything, one of them is totally unnecessary. Thanks K. M.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Hah! That’s the first I’ve heard that saying. But it’s perfect for describing the necessity of conflict.

      • Jerry B Jenkins

        That was actually a Ruth Bell Graham quote of her relationship with husband Billy. She was also asked if she had ever considered divorce. “Never,” she said. “Homicide, occasionally.”

        But it was all in fun. They were devoted to each other throughout a marriage that lasted from 1943 to her death in 2007.

    • From Fiddler on the Roof, “If he’s right and he’s right, they can’t be both right.”

  • I feel as liberated as the first time I heard, “Omit needless words.” Here in the first stages of rewriting my novel since learning by leaps and bounds this past year, I can’t tell you how I and my soon-to-be traumatized characters appreciate this! Well, one of us does. :D

    • K.M. Weiland

      Hah. My best wishes to your traumatized characters. ;)

  • Adam Muly

    Thank you so much for this post! It is very valuable advice. I am currently writing (rather trudging through) a scene, and find myself unmotivated often. Your advice has definitely making me feel ready to think about taking a different route for the scene.

    • K.M. Weiland

      If it’s boring you, the first thing I’d do is stop and ask, “why?” What would make it more interesting for you to write? The answer to fixing the scene is usually found in one of those answers.

      • Adam Muly

        Thank you so much K.M. Weiland! I appreciate your help!

  • Shadrach Emeka

    This piece is quite interesting and instructive. I learnt among other things, merging two scenes into one to make it more fascinating; and creating a conflict so as to make the story more interested

    • K.M. Weiland

      Stories are such complex beats that simplifying and streamlining where we can has the potential to make a huge difference. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Natalie

    Sometimes I am bored by a scene because I have read it a thousand times. How do I know what scenes are really boring or are just too familiar?

    • K.M. Weiland

      Three ways.

      1. Did it bore you to begin with? Why or why not?

      2. If no to the above, then give yourself a little space from the material. Come back to it after a few months and reevaluate your opinion.

      3. Give it to some objective beta readers who have never read it before and get their feedback.

  • Heather Hemsley

    Wow, this is great. Almost too many times I find myself getting bored as I write a scene. This really helped, thank you so much Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland

      And as a writer, that’s the worst! Why should we force ourselves to sit there and write something that isn’t any fun. :D

  • John Tucker

    I have a creative mind. I let it go places I’ve never been. It excites me what my mind comes up with when I’m writing scenes. But I wonder if my ideas aren’t a bit radical, scary, off-the-page and too intrusive. Yet, I want to add these ideas and sew them into the plot subtly, almost unobtrusively, so the reader is surprised, taken aback, and unaware of where the plot is taking them. I love this element of surprise when writing speculative fiction. I hope, because of your scene strategies, I will become better at it. Thanks for the help.

    • Sounds a little too passive aggressive to me. Just hit me with the punch line please!

    • K.M. Weiland

      Sounds like a job for subtext. :) Often, the most powerful ideas we share are those that aren’t stated outright, but are available for the reader to perceive under the story’s surface.

  • John Reder

    Thanks for this clarion call to clarity and concision. I love my scenes and they look so good in New Times Roman on my computer screen. How can they be bad when they look like that? Obviously, I need tools to judge their effectiveness. In my first book, I had a couple of scenes that seemed to chase a rabbit trail. I realized that I could cut them but, without anybody interested in publishing the book anyway, I put them back in because they provided a philosophical piece to the puzzle, not by waxing philosophical but by telling a tale that pertained to the journey I was taking the reader on. I didn’t find them voting at all. Still….

    • I feel I was chasing you on your rabbit trail as I tried to understand what you were saying… ??

    • K.M. Weiland

      It’s always important for the author to know *why* he’s writing something. If you’re writing it for yourself, you’re free to please only yourself. :)

    • Laughed out loud. Even snorted. ‘How can they be bad when they look like that?’

  • Warren Brooks

    I’ve noticed in a manuscript I am currently working on that those scenes that keep my interest the most are those that do create that sense of motion. They either propel the story forward or change direction.

    Thanks Ms Weiland for giving such practical advice and thank you Jerry yet again for your willingness to help budding writers.

    • K.M. Weiland

      This was something I noticed, too, in my own writing: whenever I was stuck, if I made the gets get up *move*, options instantly presented themselves to me.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    This post is excellent! Thanks for sharing! I find the part about considering the minor characters’ driving needs in a scene the most helpful, although the whole post is very helpful to me. Too often I forget to fully develop the minor characters in my stories, so I’m always going back and seeing what I can do differently with them. I’m learning to pay as much attention to them as I do the major ones. I’m going to be applying everything in this post to my writing from now on.

    • K.M. Weiland

      It’s so easy to let minor characters devolve into nothing more than “props” to further or obstruct the protagonist’s role in a scene. But when you start looking at scenes from their vantage points, all kinds of interesting possibilities open up.

  • Lawrence Hebb

    Great stuff here, I had someone read through my latest manuscript, and that’s the advice I got back. A few things that just didn’t work.
    I’m reworking the scenes and taking a few things into consideration, result? A much better, more believable story.
    Thanks

    • K.M. Weiland

      That’s great! It’s always wonderful when you can look back on past drafts and see how much better the story is now. :)

  • Sheri Boles

    Hi Jerry. In your opinion, how many pages should a decent chapter be in a book? I have a section that kind of “breaks” and would seem like the end of a chapter, but it’s only six pages long. So I’m not sure if it’s too short and I should add part of the next scene to it. Also, what makes a chapter too long? Any ideas?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sheri, A decent chapter should be whatever length it needs to be to be most effective. Fortunately for you and me, James Patterson has changed all the rules about chapter length. He has some that are as short as one sentence. What makes a chapter too long are two things: 1– it feels too long to you (that means it will feel REALLY long to your reader), and 2 – if it’s so long that it might prompt the reader to put off reading to a later time. People often decide to read “just one more chapter” before dinner or bed or whatever, and if they peek ahead and see a 20-page chapter, they might not start it at all. The danger there is that you’ve lost them to the whole book. So don’t be hamstrung by chapter-length questions. Avoid too-long, yes, but otherwise have fun and make them whatever length best serves your story and your reader.

  • I could take out the fMC in awe of mtns/rivers after having been blind (I made sure she it wasn’t passive or author intrusion), prior to another conundrum. Also had her love interest, who was abt to confront her, take a good look at the cottage, barn etc, a thief’s assiduousness–despite her crooked ways … before his confrontation with her- and a gun. Both I suppose could go, but I look at them as set up, otherwise without explanation, he’s in her driveway from a previous scene and the other she’s out of the hospital without any explanation. I took out my favorite (whaaa) scenes. Delete. But–because a lot of research went into them, I saved deleted scenes onto a WORD doc and tucked it away in a folder named ‘research’ or some such. Ima hopin’ I am on the right path.

    • K.M. Weiland

      I, too, find it helpful to save deleted scenes in a special folder. It makes parting with them easier to begin with–and you never know when you might want them back!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      What’s ‘fMC’?

  • ohita afeisume

    Thanks, K.M. It’s so reassuring for me to learn that scenes we cut out can be saved and fitted into a different story in future.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Definitely! Nothing is ever wasted.