Don't Write That Scene!

Sat Oct 29 2016

When I'm working on a novel for a client, I read very carefully and take a lot of notes. Scene by scene, I write a sentence or two about what happened. This helps fix the story in my mind and gives me something to refer back to when I'm writing up my analysis.

But I've noticed that quite often, when I get to the middle section of a story, something weird happens. I'll read a scene, and at the end of it I don't have any notes to take. I literally can't think of anything that happened in the scene that's worth writing down.

Then it'll happen again. Scene after scene will pass, and I'm not taking any notes. What's going on?

Marking Time

What's going on is not just me being lazy. It's that the scenes are marking the passage of time without actually advancing the story. Characters are going places, they're talking to each other, they're doing stuff, but that stuff is just filler. It doesn't relate in any meaningful way to the central storyline or even to any of the subplots.

Worse, those scenes are boring. Readers will skim them. And if they're going to skim, then what's the point of even writing them? As Elmore Leonard famously said, "I try to leave out the parts people skip."

Advancing the Story

I've heard it said--and probably you have too--that every scene should advance the story. This is solid advice. But how do you know whether a scene advances the story?

If you refer back to the Pentacle of Plotting, recall that stories progress as a sequence of actions characters take in pursuit of their goals. Each action has some kind of outcome: it works, or something screws it up. Either way, the characters find themselves in a new situation, from which they can repeat the cycle by deciding what to do next (what immediate goal to pursue).

That middle part--the outcome--is the key. The characters' actions either succeed or fail.

If the actions succeed, the character exits the scene closer to their ultimate goal. If the actions fail, the character ends up further from their goal.

That's what advancing the story means: at the end of the scene, the character should be in a meaningfully-different situation relative to their goals than they were at the beginning.

What does "meaningfully different" mean? What has to change to count? Could be anything.

The character might gain or lose some resource (a gun, a map, money, their car, their shoes) which is material to their plans. The character might gain information by discovering some useful clue, or might effectively lose information by discovering that something they thought was true actually isn't. The character's relationship to some other character might change, thus affecting the story's balance of allies and adversaries.

All of those things, and lots besides, count as advancing the story because something important changed as a result of the scene.


Viewed in that light, the conclusion is obvious: if you can't definitively state what important change a scene brought, or how a scene changed the character's progress towards their goals, then stop. Don't write that scene. Or if it's too late for that, then cut the scene because all the scene is doing is marking time. It'll bore your readers and they'll skim.