When you write a first draft, you shouldn’t be thinking about scene-level editing. There are times when you might think, “oh, I want to write this scene but I probably won’t use it,” but go ahead and write it. At the worst, it’s an exercise in writing. It might reveal something about your character that doesn’t come up elsewhere, but that you’ll know. At best, you might find a place for it in the story and it might add new depth.
But how do you know? You won’t know until you know what your story’s about, what the character journey is and what you want to convey to the reader. Then every scene in your story should advance character or plot (ideally both). In science fiction and fantasy (and furry stories sometimes) you can get away with a scene that is mostly worldbuilding, but it’s best to work the worldbuilding into plot or character advancement.
A great way to figure this out is to summarize each of your scenes in a sentence: “Lee discusses his future job prospects with his former boss.” Then figure out how each of the scenes connects to the others. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park use that method, and they say that in every case, the word connecting your scenes should be either “therefore” or “but.” If you can only connect the scenes with “and then,” that means that the previous scene isn’t flowing into the next one, and you’re going to lose some of the story’s energy.
“Lee discusses his future job prospects with his former boss.”
“Lee contacts some people but gets a lot of rejections.”
“Lee goes to see his boyfriend to cheer himself up.”
“Lee’s boyfriend is unsympathetic because he’s preoccupied with his own problems.”
Those scenes all flow nicely into each other and connect well. You can then look at the overall theme: is this story about Lee’s job or his relationship? If it’s more about the job, then maybe going back to his boyfriend and going down that road isn’t the right way to go; it’s putting too much weight on the boyfriend. At that point maybe you’d want Lee to talk to another co-worker instead, or maybe visit something else related to his job. Maybe you could have him discover that he has worth beyond his job, or find another way to do his job. Whatever your story’s about, every scene should play into that somehow.
So how do you decide whether the scene is important to the character or the plot? Well, every scene should start with your character wanting something, having a goal that’s important either to the plot or to the character development. At the end of the scene, the reader should know if they reached that goal or not. For example, in the above scenes, Lee wants to get a new job. So in the first scene, he gets some contacts from his former boss. In the second, he wants interviews, so he calls a bunch of people, but doesn’t get any interviews. In the third, he wants to feel better about himself, so he goes to look for external validation from his boyfriend. Now, you can look at the wants in those scenes and say, “Is this the way I want the story to go?” For example, if we want the story to be more about Lee’s relationship to his job rather than his boyfriend, we could say, “wanting validation from his boyfriend isn’t important to the story I’m telling right now.”
(It’s also possible to have multiple storylines going on, and so a scene might follow directly from one a few scenes ago. That’s okay as long as each scene has one of those causal relationships to a previous scene. Readers can keep multiple stories in their head, but cluttered stories with scenes that go nowhere make it harder to care about them.)
Ideally you want all your scenes to advance both the plot and the character journey. In the above example, you might decide that actually showing Lee getting a bunch of rejections isn’t necessary to the plot. Then you could skip directly from the conversation with his former boss to going to visit his boyfriend, and drop the information about the rejections into his conversation. “Well, my boss gave me three names and I’ve got three rejections. How was your day?” (for example).
Or you might use the rejections to show Lee’s shift in mood, where he starts the first one happy and upbeat and has gotten beaten down by the last one. This could explain why he’s more snappy than usual when he visits his boyfriend. Maybe one of the people he calls says something prejudiced about foxes that sets him on edge. You have to decide what is most important to the character and the story.
Editing isn’t an easy process, and often you’ll find yourself having to toss out scenes you like a lot. Post them on your site as a deleted scene and explain why you cut them, or just keep them for future reference on your drive. It’s important that they not remain in your story if they’re getting in the way of the story, though. I will say that in general you should err on the side of cutting out scenes, because you are already biased toward keeping all your precious words. Also, your beta readers (beta readers are very important) are much more likely to tell you that something is missing and needs to be added back in than that a scene is unnecessary and needs to be cut.
So examine each scene, ask what it does to advance your plot and character, and if the answer is “not much,” consider cutting the scene and delivering whatever information it provides within another scene. This might be very hard at first, but the more you do it, the more you’ll find your stories are engaging from beginning to end, packed only with scenes that make the reader want to go on to the next one.
An earlier version of this column appeared in Kyell’s April 2016 newsletter.