Throw Away Your Shoehorn

My adopted mother adored pretty shoes. She used to say if she won the lottery, she’d spend the money on shoes. A great pleasure in her life was dressing up for church on Sunday morning in a beautiful outfit with a fancy hat and matching shoes.

However, her feet were size 10 ½, limiting her choice of stylish footwear, always geared for women who wear size 6AA.

For her birthday, I often took her shopping for new shoes. The salesperson would use a shoehorn to jam, pummel, and squash her poor feet into lovely pumps that were at least two sizes too small.

Her pain made me cringe. I wondered how she could even walk. The ordeal brought to mind Lisa See’s brilliant book, Snowflower and the Secret Fan, about Chinese foot-binding.

By now, you’re wondering what shoes have to do with writing. Glad you asked…

A critique partner is rewriting her first novel. Her subject—a teenager struggling with a compulsive disorder that badly affects her appearance—is fresh and compelling. Her voice is wry and funny. For a relatively new writer, she has a strong grasp of how to write good scenes, from heart-rending to laugh-out-loud hysterical.

But, as good as they are, many of them don’t move the story forward.

No matter how hard we critiquers try to shoehorn these wonderful (but unnecessary) scenes into her plot, they don’t fit.

How do you determine if a scene is needed?

Novelist and writing instructor Dennis Foley identifies four major functions of a scene:

  1. Reveal character;
  2. Move the story forward;
  3. Create or increase tension;
  4. Foreshadow.

To test if a scene is needed, figure out what functions it performs. Today’s fast-paced fiction generally requires scenes that multitask, accomplishing two, three, or all four functions.

Revelations about a character can occur on the fly, while the character is taking action that moves the plot forward.

A scene may foreshadow lurking disaster, which increases tension for the reader at the same time it drives the story closer to that disaster.

Dennis offers another tip to determine if a scene is needed: remove the scene. Does the story still make sense? Can the scene easily be plunked down somewhere else in the story?

If so, it’s not part of the causal linkage that moves the story forward.

Causal linkage means something happens in A that leads to B where something else happens that leads to C, and so on. Each scene builds on the ones that precede it.

This tip is easy when stories are told in chronological order with limited characters.

However, what if you’re writing a Ken Follett-style saga or an epic fantasy with multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters? Such stories may jump around to different locations and time periods. That makes it tougher to determine whether or not a scene is necessary.

Even in “big” books, causal linkage can still be determined. Separate each plotline and string its scenes together. You can do this with color-coded index cards, plotting on a spreadsheet, or using Scrivener. After you’ve put all scenes from one plotline together, read them.

Does each scene link causally with the scene before and after it?  If a scene could fit anywhere, it may not be needed.

“But,” the writer protests, “if I cut those scenes, my book will be too short.” 

That leads to the question: how long should a book be? Lee Masterson at Writing-World.com offers guidelines for various genres but his main point is: a book needs to be as long as it takes to tell the story.

Better to write a concise, effective story than one that’s bloated and boring because of unnecessary verbiage added to reach an arbitrary number of pages.

If the story is “too short” as a novel, consider recasting it as a novella, a short story, or a screenplay. In a screenplay, one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. One-hundred-twenty pages is a two-hour movie.

The problem of excess scenes is not limited to newer writers. I just went through it with my current work in progress. About two-thirds of the way into the first draft, I hit a wall. A critique buddy suggested an abrupt, unexpected turn in the plot that punched a hole right through that pesky wall. Her idea was brilliant!

However, that change meant going back to the beginning and rewriting 200+ pages.

I’d worked diligently to hone certain scenes to the height of emotional resonance. As proud as I was of my darlings, they were now dead ends, irrelevant to the new plot direction.

So I used a trick TKZ authors taught me: cut those parts and stick them in an “outtakes” file.

You’re not killing your beloved children but instead sending them to a time-out.

A funny thing happened. Those scenes waited patiently, out of sight and out of mind. When critiquers and beta readers went through the revised draft, they didn’t notice their absence.

Those deleted scenes almost never get put back into the story. As wonderful as I thought they were at the time, those size 10 ½ scenes just plain didn’t fit the size 6AA plot. To shove them back in would require serious shoehorning.

And that just makes my feet hurt!

TKZers, how do you decide if a scene is needed? Do you have hints to chop the excess?

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale in October for $1.99 or FREE on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link.

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22 thoughts on “Throw Away Your Shoehorn

  1. Debbie,
    thanks for the article. It gives helpful tools for working and improving the scenes in our fiction.
    The best advice about choosing the scenes I heard so far was to see whether I, as a writer, am enthusiastic about writing them. Because if I don’t have fun writing them, then readers won’t enjoy reading them either.
    Here is an excerpt from an article by Rachel Aaron called “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” (http://www.sfwa.org/2011/12/guest-post-how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-a-day-to-10000-words-a-day/). This article addressed her productivity as a writer.
    Here is what Rachel wrote in the section of her article titled “Side 3: Enthusiasm”:

    “Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.
    This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

    This discovery turned out to be a fantastic one for my writing. I trashed and rewrote several otherwise perfectly good scenes, and the effect on the novel was amazing. Plus, my daily word count numbers shot up again because I was always excited about my work. Double bonus!”

    So actually the increase in the speed with which we write or the strength of the yearning we have to write specific scenes can be a great indicator of the good ones.
    And I agree, a shoehorn is a bad idea: both for shoes (and our feet) and stories! 😀

  2. Hi Victoria,

    “Because if I don’t have fun writing them, then readers won’t enjoy reading them either.” True words! The author’s enthusiasm shines through on the page. Love the term “candy bar” scenes.

    In most cases, the information in a boring scene can be summarized rather than dramatized. Quick, concise exposition transmits what the reader needs to know but doesn’t bog down the pace.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion and the link to Rachel’s terrific article.

  3. I like the “remove the scene” test. I’ve made a point of writing each scene with 1-3 plot points that move the scene forward, give a new important reveal in character, or foreshadow something coming for the reader to worry about (or a red herring). If you’re always aware of giving each scene A purpose, it makes it harder to delete them.

    As you suggested, whenever I decide to change plot points & cut out a scene, I cut & paste that scene into a saved file. I rarely ever reuse those scenes, but it makes me feel better about cutting them & I can move on.

    But pulling out a scene for me is like playing that tower building game “Janga” where you try to pull out a piece yet keep your tower standing. Each cut is a risk that may need shoring up if the story is tightly written.

    Good post, Debbie.

    • Excellent comparison to Janga! If a scene doesn’t have a purpose, it needs to go.

      I think you’re the TKZer who first gave me the idea of an “outtakes” file some years back. I’ve used it ever since. Thanks, Jordan!

  4. I once cut 50K words and started over. It wasn’t an easy decision, but something—that certain je ne se quoi—was missing and no matter what I did I wasn’t happy with the story. None of the scenes were what I’d call filler. Rather, the plot didn’t pop like I’d hoped it would in the planning stage. In the long run, it turned out to be the right decision. Sometimes, you gotta kill your darlings, as difficult as it may seem at the time. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. Great post, Debbie!

      • It is disappointing to write a story that just doesn’t have “it.” There are about eight novels like that in the shadowy recesses of my computer memory. But if you’re not excited, why would the reader be?

        Thanks, Sue! I’m new on Twitter: @Burke_writer

        • OH wow. I never link to you when I promo your tweets because I couldn’t find you. Thanks for the twitter handle. You should add it at the top of your TKZ posts. I put my website and twitter handle on mine.

  5. Useful blog, Debbie. I try to follow these suggestions, but occasionally I fall in love with a scene that doesn’t advance the plot. My editor and/or agent let me know, and I cut it. Early in my career, I ignored the good advice of an editor about cutting a scene, and when I read the novel for an audio book, I realized she was right. So now I listen, having learned the hard way.

  6. Thanks, Elaine! I’m still reconsidering a beloved outtake scene in my WIP but only if it can be written w/o stopping the forward momentum.

    Yup, I don’t learn lessons the easy way either.

  7. Great advice! And I love the analogy to the shoehorn.

    I copied the four major functions of a scene you listed and pasted them as a reminder into the plot outline for my next novel. Maybe that will keep me on track.

    Thanks!

  8. Good advice. I’m a planster, so I don’t always know much beyond some major mile markers, but I do try to know why a scene I’m writing should be included. And yes, I often go back and cut them. If they’re OK scenes, just not right for the story, I put them in the “cutting room floor” section of my website, or offer them as bonus material to my newsletter subscribers.
    I wear a 5-1/2 D shoe, which are just as hard to find as those 10-1/2 As.

    • Terry, what a great idea to turn cut scenes into bonus material.

      Shoe sizes at either end of the spectrum are tough. But sometimes there are great bargains on the clearance rack.

  9. I leave the scenes in, even if I can’t quite figure out why they’re there yet. But often, the scene flowed out of my subconscious for a reason: the scene has a meaning and a reason for being in my story. I just didn’t realize it until later.

    For example: a young police officer and her husband go to church. I wrote this at the end of the scene. “Evil sat on the last
    seat in our row, next to the aisle.”

    Why? I didn’t know. So best take it out, right? I didn’t. I left it there. And left it there. And left it there. And left it there. One day, as I was eating the egg salad sandwich my wife had fixed me for lunch, I realized that my character was talking about the story’s ultimate bad guy being in that seat. She just hadn’t realized it yet. It was with him that my character would have one of the two vicious fights before story’s end.

    And, I copied and pasted the four scene functions on a separate document in my documents file.

    • Jim, I’ve had the same experience–writing an offhand phrase or paragraph for an unknown reason. I forget about it completely. Then I reread it much later and realize it’s significant. The subconscious is busy all the time, offering hints that we don’t always realize are important…until we do. Those are precious gifts. When in doubt, I trust the subconscious.

      Thanks for adding an excellent perspective, Jim.

  10. Holy buckets, Batman! I had to scroll and scroll down the page to get a word in. This article is just great Debbie. I miss you. Hurry on back to cowboy country.

    Sincerely, the crazy dog lady

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