Getting to the Heart of the Story

A scene from a story moves briskly, has an abundance of action and good dialogue. It’s chock full of characterization or setting. Yet it needs to be cut from the story. What could be wrong?
Writing Tip for Today: Sometimes writers can be seduced by their own scenes. If a scene contains all the positive aspects listed above, but does not shoulder some of the overall story weight, propelling it forward, it may have fallen prey to these problems:

  • Everything Must Count. Subplots, secondary characters or information that doesn’t contribute to the larger story goal. If you are switching viewpoint to make the story richer yet this new viewpoint has little to nothing to do with the main character’s problem or situation, you may confuse the reader at best, or at worst, dilute the reader’s sympathies for the protagonist. Ask yourself, “Whose story is this?” and “What does this scene contribute to the overall story?”
  • Emotions Need Time To Change. If you write one scene where the protagonist’s mother dies, realize that traumatic emotions take time to process, even for make-believe characters. The next few scenes must either show the character dealing with those emotions or else you must clearly indicate that the timeline is skipping ahead. Remember the rule: always let your reader know where and when they are.
  • Admit Your Agenda. Screen your scenes for indications you want to educate your reader about a cause or subject. Signs of writing with an agenda include: scenes where characters speak in speeches, information load or give encyclopedic responses; narrative summaries that are heavy with explanations (Resist the Urge to Explain). Look for the words “knew” or “because,” “realized” or “noticed.”
  • Setting as Character, not Protagonist. If you are good at descriptions, you may be tempted to linger in them, waxing eloquent about the surrounding while the characters stand around or sip their tea. Get your characters moving through the landscape, and weave the setting into the action instead of clumping lengthy descriptions at the scene’s beginning.
  • Watch Those Flashbacks. The cold mashed potato rule means that your reader has been in the flashback for so long, she’s forgotten what the character was doing in the real time of the scene.
  • Act Out the Interesting Stuff. And ONLY the interesting stuff. Readers are willing to assume a lot if the correct details are supplied. For instance, if you write that the character saddled a horse and rode off, you can assume that the horse’s bridle and all those other horsey things were properly fitted first. Leaving out boring details will tighten your scenes and make them more readable. And whatever you do, NEVER say a scene you’re about to dramatize is boring. We want to give the reader the sense that something was boring, long or never ending without actually writing it that way.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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