So far in this series, I’ve dealt with three aspects:
(1) your story’s purpose in terms of what you want to convey to your reader
(2) keeping the reader with you in terms of understanding the characters’ motives and behavior and making sure the reader is able to follow the story without confusion
(3) ensuring the story’s internal and external logic are consistent and make sense to the reader within the story’s context
In this post, I want to talk about keeping your story moving along. A few years back, I did a post on the importance of pacing and some ways to control it. I included two versions of a scene to demonstrate a slower and a faster pace.
This post is about the overall FORWARD MOVEMENT of the story, meaning that the story is moving from one point to the next, irrespective of the speed of that movement.
I want to note here that backstory and flashbacks can also contribute to forward movement as long as they provide information that advances the story and don’t disrupt it.
But I’m not concerned right now with pacing or the small things that might slow the story’s forward movement. You want to look for scenes or sections of a scene that don’t advance the story at all. Those are what you need to spot and eliminate.
Here’s one I actually saw in a novel. The characters were unwinding at a backyard picnic and the author had a stray dog wander into the scene. They see that the dog is wearing a collar, and before they can do anything, the dog’s owner shows up looking for it. He thanks the characters then leaves.
What purpose did this scene serve? Neither the dog nor the dog’s owner had any involvement in the story (just a random neighbor), and the author admitted that the scene really nothing to do with the story and was simply using it as filler. No important information was exchanged among the characters in the scene. Therefore, such scenes should be eliminated.
If you have two characters (John and Mary) in the lunchroom talking about something mundane unrelated to the story, like a movie John saw last night, there had better be something important or revelatory in that scene. On the other hand, if a third character (Ellen), unseen by the two, overhears the conversation and discovers that John had lied about where he was last night, then the scene would serve a purpose (assuming that’s actually important to the plot).
Along these lines, you must examine each scene and honestly ask yourself two things:
(1) Does the scene advance the story? And how does it do that?
(2) Regardless of your answer to the first question, why do you need that scene?
Let me give you a specific example. You’re writing a novel with romance elements and contains several couples in various stages of attachment (from finding themselves attracted to one another to being married). Aside from the fact that having multiple romantic entanglements could dilute the story if not handled properly, if you incorporate multiple sex scenes with the various couples, you’re setting yourself up for problems with potentially slow or gratuitous scenes. I can say this with confidence because I’ve seen more than one writer do this very thing with the predicted results.
If you think about it, the problem should be obvious. It’s fine for your main characters to be in multiple sex scenes, with some caveats. I’ll delve more into this in a moment. The real issue is that in order to show sex scenes with different couples in addition to your main characters, you have to switch to the POV of the other couples. The more POVs you use in a story, the more you pull the attention away from your main characters.
I have nothing against sex scenes, but they must follow the same rules as ALL scenes, namely that they must in some way advance the story or develop the characters in a meaningful way. Sex scenes that do neither have no place in a good story. In my editing work, I’ve seen scenes that seem to exist solely to show the couple having sex and that do little or nothing to advance the story.
Don’t get me wrong, a couple having first-time sex in a romance novel is perfectly fine, but the insertion of random sex scenes does not serve the story, regardless of what the author might believe. In well-written novels, the sex scenes should be strategically placed and serve a clear purpose. A sex scene that exists purely to show two characters having sex just because they love one another is almost certainly going to weaken the story.
This idea applies to ANY type of scene. If there’s no good story purpose, you end up with a weak or even boring scene. And, yes, sex scenes can be boring if they’re thrown in at random, no matter how well shown or explicit they are.
And this principle applies to parts of scenes as well. The scene itself may serve a purpose, but if it includes too much mundane dialogue, exposition, or description, it’s going to drag down the entire scene.
Here’s part of a scene from a novel I’m currently writing. The setting is a hospital emergency room. Two EMTs (one is Jeff) have brought in an unconscious boy who had a note taped to his shirt instructing that he be brought to this hospital and put in the care of Dr. Bryan Ash. Dr. Ash is head of the ER there. At this point in the scene, the boy is awake and speaks German, but he seems to have some degree of amnesia. Jeff has just pulled a wallet from the boy’s jeans.
Jeff checked the ID and gave a short whistle. “According to this, the kid was born October 10, 1996. Today’s his birthday.” Jeff thought for a moment. “He’s twelve.”
Bryan could see there was more. “And?”
“It says his name is Christopher…”
Bryan narrowed his eyes at Jeff. “Last name?”
“Um… It’s Ash.”
He met Jeff’s surprised look with several deep breaths to regain his composure.
“You okay, Doc?” Jeff asked. “I’ve never seen anything shake you like that.”
“Before my brother died, he was working for a company in Germany.”
“Shit, Doc. You think this boy might be related to you?”
Bryan didn’t know what to think. “Or this is someone’s idea of a sick joke. I do know Chris wasn’t married.”
Jeff raised an eyebrow and looked between the boy, Bryan, and the photo. “Not that you knew of, you mean.”
“No, Chris and I were close. He wouldn’t have kept that from me.”
Jeff looked down at the photo. “I don’t see any obvious resemblance.”
Bryan studied the boy’s features. His brother’s eyes and hair, like his own, were dark brown, and they both had elongated faces and a prominent jaw line inherited from their father. This boy had dark blue eyes and light brown hair, but his brother’s hair had been light at that age. The facial features… well… he was still young. It was hard to tell if any of Chris was there. And he had to consider the mother’s genetic contribution.
Jeff put the wallet back in the boy’s jeans and laid them on the gurney at the boy’s feet.
Do you see the problem here?
My critique group pointed out that the second-to-last paragraph had an issue with way too much information. It disrupts the pacing and pulls the reader out of the story and the characters. Although this isn’t an example of an unnecessary scene, the scene is flawed at that point. The scene was building tension until that info dump paragraph deflated it. It’s okay to put in some of that information, just not so much. Bryan is shocked at this point, so he’s not going to be doing that much thinking.
I want to point out what would have been an unnecessary scene in the novel. As I’ve written the chapter, it opens with the EMTs bringing in the unconscious boy at the end of Bryan’s day, and the story takes off from there.
If I had opened with the EMTs attending to the boy where he was found and the ambulance trip to the hospital, I’d have done a serious disservice to the story. For one thing, the POV is Bryan’s from the start, which it couldn’t be if I showed the EMTs first. By not doing that and having the EMTs give Bryan the brief backstory, I created an opening that quickly sets the scene and adds far more conflict and tension.
So you can see how I did that, here’s how the chapter opens:
A few minutes before five o’clock, Bryan Ash, head of the ER at Detroit Receiving Hospital, stood at the main desk ready to call it a day. He glanced around the mostly empty waiting area, a first for this past week.
“Time to go home to the wife,” Bryan said to the evening receptionist, who had just come on duty.
She pointed behind him, and he turned his head to see Jeff Tyler and Noah Bashir, two EMTs he knew very well, wheeling in a gurney bearing a young boy with an IV hooked up to him. “Shit,” Bryan muttered. “Sarah won’t be happy if I come home late again on a Friday.”
The EMTs brought the gurney to a halt in front of him.
“Nonresponsive pre-teen patient, all vitals normal,” Jeff said.
Bryan glanced down at the patient and pointed. “Then what’s that?” On top of the blanket covering the boy was a white T-shirt with a lot of blood on it.
Therefore, as you examine and revise your manuscript, make sure that EACH scene does the following:
(1) Advances the story significantly. By that I mean that it contains some meat, not just scraps of plot tossed into it.
(2) Increases the tension in some way, at least until you reach the end of the story where everything is wrapped up.
(3) Provides new information in the story.
Note that I didn’t include “serve a purpose” in these two rules. I know I said earlier that each scene should serve a purpose. That still holds, but I see too many writers crafting scenes that really go nowhere important and have little or no tension in them. These writers have falsely convinced themselves that the scene does serve a purpose, although if they were being honest, they’d see that the purpose was really unimportant.
One way to decide if a scene is serving a significant role in the story is to pull it out of the story. Does doing that change the story in any significant way? Would the reader know you’d pulled the scene? If your answer to those questions is “no,” then you need to reevaluate that scene and either give it more importance or pull it from the manuscript. Or maybe you don’t need a whole scene. Maybe you could replace it with one or two quick sentences.
Before I close, I’ll give you some guidance on the types of scenes you need to examine closely:
(1) Description and backstory scenes. If they don’t provide relevant information, cut the scene or the parts that don’t do this.
(2) Discussion and planning scenes. Don’t fall into the trap of having the characters call a planning session to discuss what they’re going to do then repeat it by showing the plan being executed.