Cut Useless Scenes

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My guest today is Sara L. Foust. Sara will tell us how to recognize scenes that need to be cut. More about her new book, Rarity Mountain, follows her post.

Sara: How do you know if you should include the scene you’ve just written or—gasp—cut it? First, let’s define what a scene is.

Definitions of a Scene

  • Google’s dictionary defines it as “a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book.” 
  • Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of a Selling Writer, says a scene is a unit of conflict, an account of an effort to attain a goal despite opposition.” According to Swain, scenes are then followed by sequels. Sequels are more thoughtful reflections on the part of the character about what just happened in the scene.
  • I’ve come to think of scene a little differently, and it relates to the characters’ goals. 

Scenes Based on Character’s Goals

The overall, overarching story goal is the big picture goal that continues throughout the book. Each character’s action brings the character closer toward that goal. And within the story, there are stepping stones the characters must achieve (or be denied) in order to move the story forward.

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Example:  If my goal is to get a doughnut, I have steps I have to take in order to make it happen. I have to find my shoes, get my keys, drive to the store, and pay for my doughnut. My main goal is to get the doughnut, but the stepping stone goals (shoes, keys, wallet) must be achieved in order to succeed.

Before I write, I decide each character’s story goal. Then as I write, I make sure each scene has its own stepping stone goal too. So, for me, a single scene is the unit of action the character takes toward their individual scene goal. This includes the character’s reflection that occurs before, after, or during the action. Every time the character’s stepping-stone goal changes, I start a new scene. 

When to Cut a Scene

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If I find my characters are lollygagging around not accomplishing much of anything, I know I’ve failed to include an appropriate scene goal and need to re-evaluate that scene.

In her writing craft book, Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Debra Dixon advises that each scene included in the final draft must have three reasons for being there. One of these reasons must be goal, motivation, or conflict. She elaborates that the other two reasons should show:

  • the character’s progress toward the story goal or setbacks they must overcome, 
  • pit the character against the antagonistic force, or 
  • give the character an experience that strengthens their resolve. 

When I cut a scene, it means I believe the story is actually stronger without the added fluff that particular scene gave. A scene needs to be cut if

  • it isn’t vital to the plot, even if it’s beautifully written and eloquent,  
  • the character doesn’t have a scene goal, 
  • the story can move forward just fine without the scene, or 
  • it’s boring. 

I always paste cut scenes into a separate file so if I change my mind they’re still available. Or if I just need to shed a few more tears before I completely say goodbye. It isn’t always easy to cut scenes. But I hope this helps shine a light on when they should be. 

If you or your editor cut a scene in your story, what was the reason?

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On the surface, SIMON FINCUFF and FERN STRONGBOW have nothing in common. Simon has served his sentence, but his past conviction still haunts him. Fern is a veterinarian and grew up on an off-the-grid homestead. The one thing they share? Each has a dark secret they would do almost anything to protect.

When their current careers are yanked away, they are left scrambling to pick up the pieces. A reality television show falls into their paths, offering a life-changing opportunity that tests their resolve and their faith. These two unlikely partners must battle to survive for thirty days in the untouched wilderness of Rarity Mountain with only a handful of survival items and a director who is out for drama, no matter the cost. With their lives and their carefully guarded skeletons on the line, they will discover how far they are willing to go to win the million-dollar prize for Survival Tennessee. 

Sara is a multi-published, award-winning author and homeschooling mother of five who writes surrounded by the beauty of East Tennessee. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee and is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers. She is the author of the Love, Hope, and Faith Series, which includes Callum’s Compass (2017), Camp Hope (2018), and Rarity Mountain (March 2019).  She also has a story, “Leap of Faith,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zoneand a novella, Of Walls (November 2018). Sara finds inspiration in her faith, her family, and the beauty of nature. When she isn’t writing, you can find her reading, camping, and spending time outdoors with her family. To learn more about her and her work or to become a part of her email friend’s group, please visit www.saralfoust.com.



A Great Story Is More Than a String of Interesting Events

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Like many new writers, I thought I had to create a string of interesting events to make a good story. Some scary, some romantic, some brave, etc. I didn’t see the story as my protagonist’s journey to become someone better.

Goals

Now I know my protagonist’s internal and external goals need to guide the events I include. The events will have conflicts and disasters that push my protagonist forward to attain her goals or direct her to change her goals.

Here’s an example showing how to create events so that designer Abby can do something she couldn’t do in the beginning.

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First, look at her goals and what she struggles with.

Internal Goal: Abby wants people to notice her and listen to her.

External Goal: She wants to be promoted to manager of a design team.

 

Next, identify what she’s good at.

Competency: She’s an accomplished designer.

Then, considering the above, brainstorm the initial event that sends Abby on her journey.

Possible Inciting Incidents

Case 1: Abby must use vacation time to go home and take care of her loving mom.

Case 2: A design manager’s accident keeps him home for at least 2 months. The firm will choose the interim manager from Abby and her peers. The chosen designer will show how successful she is as a manager.

Case 3: For the open manager position Abby wanted, the company hires a handsome man from outside the firm.

Case 4: Three top designers must present a design for a particular project. They’ll each have three junior designers to help them. Company vice presidents will judge the design. The winner gets a manager job.

Creating Meaningful Events

Although we could make Case 1 work, it doesn’t naturally mesh with her internal and external goals or her competency. For Case 3, we could, again, brainstorm twists to make Case 3 work with Abby’s goals.

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I can see great possibilities for a series of events that flow from Abby’s goals for Cases 2 and 4.

In Case 2, the first set of events could center on Abby getting the interim job because of her competency. She thinks a permanent manager job is hers. But she applies hard-nosed tactics to get her reports to listen to her.

In the next events, conflicts and disasters surge as her reports avoid her, and production and quality decrease. Abby’s internal and external goals are at risk.

Then new events arise when a mentor explains to her what good management is: using her expertise to help her reports be their best, to obtain what they need to do their jobs, and to lead them with firmness, not meanness.

Then the crisis event occurs when the manager returns. Abby is a peer again, and the manager scraps her design.

More events carry her to a satisfying ending. Possibly, her peers back her, and the manager reinstates the design. Then, upper management recognizes her leadership and sends her to management training.

Unlike in the beginning, Abby now knows how to get people to listen to her, is a noteworthy leader, and is on the road to management.

Case 4 could flow with similar events.

Replace interesting story events with events meaningful to your protagonist’s goals. Click to tweet.

What system, such as the Hero’s Journey, do you use to map out events?

Deadlines, Platform, Life Commitments, Oh My!

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Have you ever felt so frazzled, you couldn’t find the panic button?

You may even ask, “How could this happen? I’m an organized person.”

Last week as I shuffled through my Writer’s Digest magazines, I spotted the February 2017 issue’s article, “Map Your Writing Time” by Sage Cohen. I gauged Ms. Cohen’s suggestions with how I use them.

Ms. Cohen’s Suggestions

1. Articulate your destination. I prioritize my writing and personal goals every week. I divvy up tasks then enter them on my scheduling template, which already displays regular tasks. I put an * next to writing, platform, speaking, and marketing tasks. On the side, l record future tasks to schedule. If I can, I include some padding. Then I report my goals with an * to my accountability partners.

2.  Make one goal inform another to “allocate your time in a way that delivers the greatest value.” I often use the projects I’m working on as subjects of my blogs. For example, when I did a book signing for my first book, I wrote a blog post from my research and experience. Reviewing that post while I write this one, reminded me of tasks I need for the bookstore signing I’m doing this Saturday.

3.  Set timers so you don’t spend too much time on nonwriting tasks. No problem. I have two devices in my office, but I’ll now use the timers more on nonwriting tasks.

4,  Use nonwriting commitments to service your writing. I always mull writing ideas during long drives to scheduled obligations. I’ll brainstorm my protagonist’s goals on my half-hour drive to my writers’ group tomorrow.

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5.  If you’re repeatedly drawn toward a project that’s not a top priority, consider moving it there. Although I scheduled work on my new novel, my non-fiction kept calling me to finish it ahead of deadline and send it. After reading this suggestion, I’m doing that.

6.  Don’t waste perfectly good slivers of time. I’m writing now while my husband attends an evening meeting.

7. Rise an hour earlier when it’s quiet. I get up at 5:30, but I’m considering 5:00 for a short duration while I’m under two deadlines and know galleys are coming soon for a third book.

8.  Leave notes where you stop working. I suppose I should expand on “STOPPED HERE.”

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9.  Track your time on tasks and learn how much time you need so you’ll know better what tasks and projects you can take on. Good idea, but I don’t have time. :0)

10.  Stop panicking and appreciate the time you have and the progress you’re making in that time. I’ll appreciate my time and progress more. I’m already thankful for a husband who takes over housework so I can write. He’s also taken over some marketing tasks.

Reading Ms. Cohen’s suggestions showed me I do many of the right activities. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I need to forget the pileup and just do what I’ve scheduled.

Writers, are you so panicked you can’t find the panic button? Click to tweet.

What do you do to make your writing, platform, and life commitments mesh?