There are many things that make a scene entertaining, including outstanding dialogue, well-placed description, unique characters, and a fascinating subject. But even a beautifully written scene could get in the way if it doesn’t serve any purpose to the story. On the other hand, a plot essential scene can come across as an information dump if it’s not carefully sculpted.
As with anything, our goal as writers is to find a balance: a balance between being entertaining and informative (or moving the story forward).
Have you ever written something that was way over the word count? Maybe a short story for a contest, or a novel you’re hoping to get published. A great way to condense is to look for scenes that serve only one purpose. Sure, maybe it’s entertaining, but do we really learn anything about the characters? Does anything change during/because of it—a relationship, character, society? In essence, we’re really asking: does it move the story forward, or does it slow it down? I’m sure you know which one we’re going for.
So, once we recognize a scene as a problem (though we hate to admit it), how do we fix it? Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. You have a few options.
- Scratch the scene entirely—I know it’s hard to hear, but sometimes, it really is the best option
- Merge the best parts into another scene—it can be as small as a single, great line of dialogue, to an entire conversation. Or perhaps you keep the setting, and replace the third conversation that takes place in the dull school cafeteria to the local arcade that was so greatly described in your problematic scene.
- Make up for what it’s lacking—If you absolutely love the scene, you can try to build it up. Was it mostly just fluff, but the sweetest scene you’ve ever written between two characters falling in love? Why not make that into a crucial moment in their relationship. Make that the first time he kisses her, or the moment she realizes she likes him as more than a friend.