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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Essential Story vs. Filler

So, it turns out that shooting your computer screen because a scene just doesn't work won't actually do anything to your electronic manuscript.

It just means that you spend and awkward half hour on the phone with tech support. And then some nice men with uniforms and badges come over. They ask about the gun. They ask about the computer. They ask about the skeleton in the basement with the words Internal Editor etched on his bleached skull.

All around, it's very awkward and unless your writing group has a sizable bail fund. I don't recommend this approach.

Tempting as the gun approach is, I just don't have time for computer shopping right now. So I stopped short of reaching for the Smith and Wesson (okay - I lie - the only gun in my house is made by Nerf) and tried to figure out why this chapter was killing me.

I banged my head on the wall and tried to find the cause.


- Character Voice is correct (check)
- Character's are keeping to arc (check)
- Scene is within the bounds of novel reality (check)
- Scene is believable (check)
- Scene gives relevant information (check)
- Scene is not repeating previous information (check)
- Scene is world-building (check)
- Scene has conflict (check)

Check, check, checkity, check, check, CHECK! What's wrong?

*get smacked upside the head with the obvious*

Not all scenes that could happen need to happen On Stage. Just because your character brushes their teeth every morning after breakfast doesn't mean the reader needs the details.

If your character brushes her teeth and realizes they've turned neon orange just like Hunky Bad Dude's after a Breathtaking Kiss - that's relevant.

If your character brushes her teeth, applies lip gloss, grabs her purse, walks down the stairs, opens a door, takes twenty-three steps to the bus stop, and picks seat number four before a five hour drive to work where nothing happens but her brain slowly atrophying from exhaust fumes - no one needs to know.

The gray area is when you have a scene that adds to world-building and could be relevant but doesn't have enough umph.

Checklist for Relevant Scenes (feel free to add your own suggestions here):
- Law of Three (three distinct conflicts feeding the main plot)

- addresses all relevant subplots/story arcs (With sci-fi you may have divided story arcs because you're dealing with characters on different planets and bouncing between two POV or more. You can't address an issue the POV character isn't at least peripherally aware of.)

- new touch of world-building added

- no more than three lines of backstory in any given scene

- end status of the character has been changed by the action from the opening status

I think this last one is important. Somehow, the scene has to change where the character is in their story arcs (emotional, conflict, personal growth). There are several scenes in the rough draft of Twisted Metal that are well-written (for a rough draft), likable, and realistic. There's even conflict. But it doesn't change the MC in any way.

Bruises don't count. The character needs to be either in a more precarious position, in love, out of love, dying, killing, or dead by the end of the chapter if they started out safer, out of love, in love, alive, or pacifistic. Pick your antonym, that's your goal for the chapter.

Remember, nice lives don't make the NYT bestseller list. People want to read about someone who had a worse day than them. So make 'em bleed.

Comic is courtesy of, and copyright to, XKCD. A discussion of the -gry riddle can be found HERE. Yes, there are more than three words in the English dictionary that end in -gry. But there are also words in the English dictionary that use W as a vowel, so consider yourself warned.


  1. Terrific advice. I was having this problem the other day. I was BORED writing the scene and realized that if I was bored writing it, God help the reader. And it was for this very reason--it was a getting here to there kind of thing that could've been summarized in a sentence or two. Ugh.

  2. Hey, this is some really good advice. I'm going to have to go over this as I'm editing my chapters in Critique Circle to make sure it's all hunky dory. I normally don't like scene-formulas but this is actually a good one.