Monday, August 22, 2016

What's the Point?

A popular post from January 2010

by Annette Lyon

Yes, I know you love your characters and that they're real to you, but we don't need every single detail about their lives. After they get home from work, do we really need to have a 4-page scene with several of them sitting around discussing what they ate for dinner?

You'd be surprised at how often I come across that kind of thing in my freelance work: long, exhaustive scenes that serve no absolutely point (besides, maybe, as a substitute for Ambien). They may be well-written on the sentence level, but they accomplish nothing.

The entire section could be deleted, and from a story standpoint, you'd never know it.

As a writer, it's easy to inadvertently drop in useless scenes. Like I said, we love our characters. They're real, at least in our heads. And just about anything they do is interesting . . . to their creator.

But you've got an audience to keep entertained. That's why every scene needs to accomplish something. Preferably, more than one something.

Here are six potential goals for a scene:
1) Advance the plot.
This is one of the most important goals for a scene. If the story isn't moving forward, a reader is going to get bored. Keep the story moving, progressing, advancing.

2) Create or show conflict.
Tension is what propels the plot. Without conflict, you have no story. Conflict holds the reader's interest. Plus, it's what most of your story should be based on anyway, right?

3) Set the setting.
Few scenes should have this as a purpose exclusively, but it is a valid one. Often we need to see and experience where the characters are, especially in genre books where the location is just as important as the rest of the story, such as in historical, science fiction, and fantasy works. Just don't belabor the setting. Make sure something else is going on as well. Eight pages dwelling on the unusual sunsets, architecture, or clothing get old.

4) Reveal character.
Do this through actions, thoughts, and dialogue of your POV character as well as their interpretations of others' actions and dialogue. Use this one a lot.

5) Show back story.
I mention this one with a bit of trepidation, because too many writers go, "Yippee! My purpose is to show back story!" and then we end up with long sections of info dumps, making the story stall and the reader fall asleep. Show back story in snippets and with a purpose. Never halt the story and then go into a 5-page history of a character. BORING.

6) Lay groundwork for later plot.
At times, you'll need to set-up a location, event, or something else that'll show up again or be relevant later. Same goes for foreshadowing. Just don't get too carried away here. Make sure you keep things interesting.

As a general rule of thumb, try to make every single scene accomplish at least two of the six purposes. If a scene isn't doing at least one of the six, delete it. It's fluff, and you don't need the scene.

If it's doing one of the six, see if you can add another one or two to punch it up.

Another good idea is to aim for the vast majority of your scenes to have at least one the purposes be either #1 or #2 (advance the plot or create conflict). Then add another one, say character or setting.

Don't try to cram all six purposes into a single scene. That's overload, and readers like that just as much as they like fluff (they don't).

As you read over your work-in-progress, note your scenes and the why. You might not have written the scene with a why in mind, but you can go back to see if there is one now. If not, revise and put one in.

Bottom line, every scene needs one of two things:
1) A purpose
2) The delete key.


Anonymous said...

There's a similar exhortation involving plot, theme and characters as the three important elements, but I like these six better. Makes the criteria more flexible.

L.T. Elliot said...

First of all, that ambien comment made me laugh my butt off. (I read a book like that last year and told everyone that I used it as a sleep-aid. It worked, too.)

Secondly, that was one of the BEST posts I've ever read on how to create a scene well (and how to cut fluff). Bravo, Annette!

Kimberly said...

I have to echo L.T. (I often do, 'cause she's brilliant like that). Fabulous, succint, and oh, oh so helpful!

Anonymous said...

I'm printing this post out, to put in my writing binder. That way I can reference it quick and easy every time.

Carolyn V. said...

Annette, thanks so much for this! It's just what I need for my revisions. =) Excellent post.

Susana Mai said...

I always know when I'm going down the slippery slope of no purpose when I'm bored by my own writing. Then again, why can't I keep the really funny but completely unnecessary line? Why? Waaaah!

I also feel that letting backstory or purposeless plot drive your story really lets your characters down. There were definitely points where I just wrote a few pages in order to get from point A to point B and I felt guilty when I was done. It's not worth it. Besides--and I feel like you briefly mention this--it's one thing to have a scene between two characters just sitting across the table a la "My Dinner With Andre" and have them actually talk and make something fascinating out of thin air. It's quite another to sit two people down simply as filler space.

Curtis said...

Very good post, Annette.