There’s no good writing, only good rewriting. Or so the saying goes, or something like that. Anyway, one of the most difficult parts of revising a first draft is making the decision to cut scenes that you’ve poured your heart and soul (and probably some damn fine sentences) into, for the sake of the novel.
We’ve all heard Stephen King’s admonishment to kill your darlings, but no novel scene is more darling to a writer than one that presents a great emotional or physical hurdle for the main character(s) to overcome. These anchor conflict scenes are key to escalating the tension in your story, but sometimes, they… just don’t work. Or maybe they actually work, but feel like they don’t, in the moment.
Conflicts are the tentpoles of your story. Cutting them during editing is a big decision. Should you, or shouldn’t you? Here are three questions to ask before you send your conflict scene to the big cutting room floor in the sky.
1. Does this conflict challenge my character’s values in any way?
Fundamentally, stories are about change. Most of the time, especially in genre fiction, they start t Point A, and must arrive at Point B before the last page is turned (or Point C, or Sector Z, or whatever).
Anyway, even external change in the plot (the bad guy gets killed; the virus is contained; the girl gets the guy) is underpinned by pivotal growth or regression in the main merry band of characters. If you’ve written a scene that does not force this evolution forward, even as some obstacle forces your character to step backward and regroup, the conflict does you no good. You’re literally just wasting your characters’ time.
2. Does this conflict serve my story’s theme?
Theme was one of those baffling high school English concepts that was usually code for “shit I made up.” However, whether you recognize it or not, theme is the big idea, the principal principle, the silent driver, that permeates all parts of your book. Ay scene that doesn’t reference or serve your theme in some way, feels jarring and ut of place to readers (even if it doesn’t to the writer).
For example, let’s say that in your story, your theme is that innocence should be protected at all costs. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a boy and his younger brother growing up in challenging circumstances. If you, say, include a scene in which the younger boy cheats on a test and gets caught by his teacher, causing him to run away from school and narrowly avoid getting flattened by a tractor trailer once he’s reached the edge of the nearby freeway, mayyyyybe you should look hard at this scene with your finger over the Delete button. It doesn’t seem to serve the scene. The idea of innocence or lack thereof isn’t represented here in any tangible way.
Getting hit by a truck has a different kind of emotional gravitas than, say, losing one’s virginity or witnessing something horrible. Consider cutting that kind of scene.
3. Does the conflict involve my characters acting as logically as possible?
We all know people sometimes make stupid decisions, but they are nearly always rational and motivated by some sort of self-interest (which only seems irrational to outsiders). If you have generated a conflict where your character makes a decision that’s necessary to your story but fundamentally in opposition to his or her established self-interests, the conflict is going to feel contrived and forced.
It’s the classic girl-in-horror-movie setup: The character, half-mad with fear, does something like run into the attic to escape the undead serial killer, even though she’ll be trapped up there and she knows it. While this can be a convenient place for you to stage the conflict in which she is the first character in the story to die, it’s still stupid, because she made a stupid decision, and your readers know it.
In that case, it’s better not to even introduce such a conflict in the first place. Delete it.
How do you make sure all your tentpole plot points are vital to your story? Have you ever cut a scene that you later regretted? Share in the comments.