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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