Another month, and another of our authors’ Round Robins. This month we have another thought-provoking topic, this time set by author Marci Baun
Deleting scenes: Do you ever delete scenes? When and why do you delete them? And what do you do with them? Do you save them? Or just toss them?
When I first started writing, I found the idea of cutting entire scenes massively painful. My precious hours’ of toil in the bin! I’m a lot more relaxed about it now, and will happily cut if it means getting the story into shape.
I do a lot more freelance editing for fiction writers than writing of my own these days, but I always bear in mind how I felt with my first ever novel when I suggest to a new writer that they may want to cut something. I know how gutting it can be to ‘sacrifice’ a scene it’s taken you so much time to polish.
But as hard as it can be to delete your work, sometimes the story is vastly improved by pruning.
5 top tips on editing and cutting scenes in your manuscript
Editing tip one: If your scenes are repeating information, better to delete them
In our social interactions in real life, we often only need to see a certain type of behaviour once or twice in a person to get an impression of them. Human beings are very sophisticated at weighing people up, and the same is true when we’re reading fiction.
In a recent manuscript I edited, the author wanted to show in a piece of backstory how her heroine developed a close relationship with her bachelor uncle after her parents died. There were lots of lovely scenes showing how the little girl and curmudgeonly grieving brother bonded.
After a while, though, these scenes, as touching as they were individually, seemed to lose their impact. My suggestion was to cut the number of backstory scenes to just one or two. Readers would easily get the point, and my feeling was the impact would be stronger without too many.
So, editing tip one is to avoid repetition of scenes that all do the same job for you.
Editing tip two: Ask yourself what does this scene add to the development of the story? If it could be cut, would it make any difference to the narrative?
I often ask writers to ask themselves the question ‘what is my book about?’ It may seem reductive, but sticking to this simple question will help you keep the focus on your main characters and the tension high.
Say your story is about Sheila, who has sworn off love after several bad relationships, goes travelling, and meets handsome widower Rupert on a cruise. Are those funny scenes where Don in cabin 10 is flirting with her necessary? If they make Rupert sit up and take notice, then yes. If not, would it matter if they were cut?
How about those scenes where her mum keeps emailing to tell her how her gran is doing? If they serve a purpose in showing Sheila to be a caring person, despite her present hedonistic cruise, and worthy of Rupert’s love, then they’re necessary. If they’re just there to show what Sheila’s mum and quirky gran are like, then they can be cut, because mum and gran aren’t the story.
You may think these extra scenes will bring fun and interest to readers, but in fact every time you step outside your core premise that all-important tension is lost and you’re moving away from developing the characters you have.
It’s not always easy to see where your own narrative is drifting, but the simple question ‘what is my story about?’ can often help keep the story grounded.
(You can find more on the importance of keeping your story focused in this post I wrote a while ago)
Editing tip 3: Cut minor characters and/or merge them
A handy tip writers often use is to merge secondary characters. Going back to the example of Sheila on the cruise. Say you decide to keep the scene where Don in cabin 12 is flirting with her, because it makes grieving Rupert look up and realise she’s an attractive woman. Do you really need the scenes where Toby is flirting with her, too? Isn’t that just overkill?
Why not cut Toby and merge his character with Don’s?
This tip works across all genres, by the way. Does the detective need two best friends? Could one do the same job?
I’ve even suggested ‘culling’ a parent before, when the heroine only conversed with her mum. Does the dad in the corner watching TV add anything? (Sorry, dad, but you’ll need to pull your weight as a character in order to stay in the book!)
Editing tip 4: cut the backstory
Fitting in a character’s backstory in a subtle way is, for me, one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel. Some writers say it helps on a first draft just to drop in all of the character’s past as you begin write your way into the story, and then either cut it out or try to find a better way to get the history across to readers later on in the narrative.
You can’t always tell where your story begins until you’ve actually started writing, and often the first two chapters turn out to be all backstory and not the real story at all, and could be deleted.
There are two other great pieces of advice I’ve heard from other writers. The first is: if you feel a scene isn’t working, go through and highlight in yellow all the parts referring to the past. If you cut these out, would the scene work better?
The second piece of advice is: never share your character’s backstory until the last possible moment. It’s tempting to explain to readers upfront exactly why a character behaves a certain way.
But readers are very savvy. Just a hint is enough to make them realise there is more to this character than meets the eye, and by withholding information, you will make readers turn the pages wanting to find out.
This leads to:
Editing tip 5: resist the urge to explain
This tip isn’t so much about deleting whole scenes as about cutting information that’s already clear from the narrative. It’s tempting to tell readers how a character feels – for example ‘Leonora left, slamming the door behind her. She was absolutely furious.’
It will have been clear from the dialogue in the scene that Leonora is furious at this point, so the last sentence could easily be cut. Plus in real life, if someone slams a door there’s no need for them to shout through the letterbox that they’re angry. We get it already!
Sometimes gestures or expressions can be ambiguous. A hand on the brow could mean someone’s puzzled, or it could mean they’re really upset. Often it works much better to let the reader decide, without hammering it home for them. Part of the whole pleasure of reading novels is to get to know new characters and to work out who they are for ourselves.
The last question in our topic is ‘what do you do with your deleted scenes?’
When I first started writing, I always used to save deleted scenes, just in case I could ever use them again, but in fact I never opened my folder of ‘outtakes’ after the book was published. So I really enjoyed these tips from the Writing Beginner website on 5 Clever Uses for Your Deleted Scenes, including publishing the scenes on your website, or adding ‘blooper’ scenes to the back of a book.
Finally, I’ll end with this famous quote, from as long ago as 1914:
I’ve really enjoyed this month’s Round Robin! If you’d like to hear what the other authors have to say on this topic, please click on the links below.
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2n4
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com