Last week, I wrote this post about finding out that Act II of my WIP had gotten away from me and ended up at 41k words, about 8k-10k more words than my target for the act. The length of acts is important for pacing, tension, and keeping the story moving. The prospect of cutting a quarter of the words out of this one before handing it in for a critique seemed daunting.
This week, I can report that I have tamed the beast! At least for first draft purposes. My target was to get down to 35k words or less. After my edits, I made it to just over 34k. I had to ‘kill some of my darlings’ along the way, not the least of which was a scene that I actually kind of loved.
My first pass at edits yielded some good results. I had some sections where I’d tried a few different approaches to a scene, and already had notes like ‘combine these two pages’ and ‘make into one scene’. I thought revising these sections might cut out 4k or 5k for me. I was sadly mistaken. After slogging through these sections and turning them into tight, integrated scenes and hitting the delete button on so much extraneous text, I’d managed to cut about 2500 words. Thorough editing to cut repetitive information and paring down descriptions to the most evocative few points bought me another 1500-word reduction.
To meet my own self-imposed goal of getting down between 30k – 35k words, I needed to cut at least another 2500 words. The problem was, I knew where to find those words. I’d identified a scene for potential cutting upon my first read-through of the Act. But I liked that scene. It brilliantly showcased the essence of each of my three protagonists and one of my antagonists. It had witty banter, flirting, and realistic-sounding girlfriend conversation. It sowed some hints for future developments, and most importantly, conveyed Important Information. That’s when I knew it had to go.
The more I learn about writing at the micro level, down at the scene and even scene beat level, the more I realize that any time I say I need something because the reader must have this uber-important information, I know I’ve missed a chance to do more important things like develop character and move the story to a new place. So here I was with this perfectly lovely scene and these witty characters having these fun interactions. But the characters didn’t grow in the course of this scene. They didn’t end up in a different place from where they’d started. This scene didn’t change any one of the four characters in it in any kind of significant way. On that level, it failed as a scene.
Failing scenes don’t always have to go in the first draft. I’m being particularly cruel to my darlings at this early stage because I’m submitting my work for critique in stages, before having the completed first draft. But even if you’re completing the entire first draft before editing a single one of your beloved words, there will come a day of reckoning when each and every one of your scenes should have to justify its existence. Providing info-dump or telling readers that thing that they absolutely must know at this point in the story are not legitimate reasons for a scene to be there.
To earn its keep, a scene should move a character forward, change something in her, force her to succeed or fail and change or resist change and pay the consequences on some level. It must push the story forward, contribute to rising tension, hurl the characters toward the inevitable point of no return. Every scene must serve the story, and if it doesn’t, if it exists to serve the writer’s interests instead of the story, it must be sacrificed on the story altar.
If you’re a writer, what criteria do you demand your scenes meet to earn their place in your story? If you’re a reader, do you ever find yourself skipping the parts that don’t keep the story moving?