Top 5 Reasons Scenes Get Deleted From Novels
Since January 1st, I’ve been DEEP in revision mode for my NaNoWriMo novel (which as of now is still a secret…sorry!). But I can tell you this. It’s needed a ton of work so far! But I will say I’m having a blast revising it, possibly more so than most of my revisions.
As I sort through my scenes and beats and determine what to keep and what to cut, I’ve been finding, interestingly enough, that most of the scene cards that I’ve labeled “CUT” on my storyboard fit into one of five categories. These are by no means the only reasons you might cut a scene from a novel, but in thinking back on previous novel revisions, I think most of my cut scenes can be categorized under one of these five labels. Let’s take a look.
1) Duplicate Information
When fast drafting, it’s easy to write in scenes that basically serve the same purpose or reveal the same type of information. By definition, fast drafting is always writing forward, never going to back to edit. And sometimes when I’m really into fast drafting, I don’t even go back to review what I’ve written in previous days (to avoid the temptation to edit). So naturally, I end up forgetting that I already have a scene whose purpose is to introduce the main character’s biggest fear, or flashback to their traumatic breakup, or deliver some crucial piece of information about the world.
In the revision process, when I’m taking inventory of my scenes, I will almost always find scenes that essentially serve the same purpose, that’s when I either get out my scissors (and cut the duplicate scene completely) or get out my needle and thread (and attempt to stitch the two scenes together).
2) Pacing Killer
Ah, this is a big one. In my first drafts, I tend to a have a lot of scenes or partial scenes that come smack dab in the middle of a super exciting, riveting, fast-paced section of the plot and….SCREECH! Bring it a jolting halt. Maybe the scene is just in the wrong place and needs to be moved. Or sometimes it’s a scene that, looking back, doesn’t really belong in the story at all and can be “snip snipped” right on out there.
This typically happens when I’m working out the story as I write the story (which happens a lot in first drafts.) Maybe I’m just discovering something new about the character’s backstory and so I add it in right there, in the middle of all the action, when really it goes somewhere else, or doesn’t need to be spelled out at all. Or sometimes I’ll simply take WAY too long to get a character from point A to point B, when I could just cut all of that and have them be at point B at the start of the scene.
When drafting, these explorations or journeys might feel super important, but when we step back and look at the novel as a whole in the revision process, we see that we don’t actually have to spend three pages describing the character’s uneventful commute to work. We can just put them at work and keep the plot moving along at a nice pace.
3) Repetitive Actions or Events
I’ll often get so inspired by an idea for a certain action or event, that I’ll end up including it more than once. Like a clever way that a character finds a piece of information, a surprise visitor at the door, or the lights going out just as the character is about to achieve some important goal.
In reviewing my manuscript I’ll often find more than one instance of these exact same events, possibly triggering different realizations or discoveries, but they still feel repetitive.
When writing the System Divine trilogy with Joanne Rendell, we’d do this often in our early drafts. One of our ongoing jokes was how often our characters passed out and came to in a totally different scene. “There they go again! Fainting like damsels in distress!” we’d say.
In one draft of the second book, one of our characters had at least three head injuries. Whenever we’d find another one, we’d laugh at our eagerness to bring bodily harm to our poor characters and then either delete or revise the scene.
4) Discordant Tone
“One of these things is not like the other!” Remember that beloved Sesame Street game?
This happens a lot in my first drafts, when I’m still feeling out the tone of the book. Perhaps I think the book is going to be a dramedy, so I sprinkle in all of these funny scenes to lighten the mood. Then, in reading back one of those scenes, I’m like, “Woah! Read the room!” It feels totally out of place tonally with the rest of the story.
Again, all of this is fine. First drafts are about discovery. Second drafts are about fixing. When I find these tonally discordant scenes I typically cut them and try to figure out where and how to deliver any important information elsewhere in the story.
5) Doesn’t move the plot forward
And finally, my favorite one of all. Well, not really. I actually hate this one. I can’t tell you how many cherished scenes I’ve had to cut because they fell into this category. And trust me, I try to argue for every single one. “But it’s some of my best writing!” “But it’s so funny!” “But the dialogue is so clever!”
While all of that may be, if it doesn’t move the plot forward (or deliver some piece of essential new information), then I usually come to the same, sad conclusion: it has to go. I’m convinced this is where the phrase, “Kill your darlings” originates. And after I’m done holding my vigil for my murdered scene, I read the manuscript back and begrudgingly admit that it does read better without that unnecessary scene weighing it down.
How can you tell if the scene doesn’t move the plot forward or is unnecessary? Easy. Cut it and see if the rest of your story collapses like a house of cards. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t that essential to the overall structure or integrity of the story. I call this the “Lift Out Test” and you can read more about it here
So there you go! The top 5 reasons scenes get deleted from my first drafts. I hope this sparked some inspiration for your own novel revision process or your current work in progress.
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