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Is this Trip Necessary?

I’ve seen a lot of advice for pantsers here on Mad Genius Club, but not so much for plotters. I’d like to discuss something that I suspect is more of a hazard for plotters than for pantsers: the unnecessary scene.

I consider myself a semi-plotter. A book usually starts as a prose summary of about 5000 words with notes for specific scenes and snippets of dialogue I want to use. (I am told that normal writers write much shorter synopses. Piffle. There’s no such thing as a normal writer, and this length is what works for me.)

Now, this synopsis may or may not reflect how the book turns out. A synopsis is a map, the actual book is the territory. The map may have highlighted what looked like a perfectly good route from A to B, but the journey will almost certainly deviate from that nice straight line: there’s some fantastic scenery over here, that bridge no longer exists, we’ve discovered a dead end that wasn’t marked on the map. And all that is fine. I’m not married to the synopsis. I’m not even going steady with it. Its only purpose, really, is to establish that there is a plausible route from opening to ending.

Still, even when you’re consciously willing to deviate from the synopsis, there are ways in which it can trip you up. One of the worst problems: being overly attached to a scene that made sense in the planning stage but isn’t necessary when you get to the actual writing.

Over time I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with a scene, when I can’t “see” it or “hear” the characters, it can help to sit back and ask, “Is this trip really necessary?” Quite often the scenes I have trouble with are those that the book doesn’t need at all. Just because a piece of information is needed for the plot doesn’t mean that a dramatization of how our character came to know this will be interesting in the story. And if it’s not interesting, why use that full-fledged, dramatized scene? Frequently I find that a single line of narration does the job.

The synopsis may contain something like this: “While Jillian stands in line to buy whatever food is available, Trisha gives a neighbor a haircut and has the bright idea of bartering hair styling services for food, so that women will be able to avoid going out in the increasingly dangerous streets.”

When I come to write that chapter, what am I going to dramatize – Jillian’s adventures on the street, or Trisha giving somebody a haircut? No contest! And now, the scenes of Jillian buying food and trying to get home with it convey almost everything I want the reader to know: there are major food shortages in the city and it’s getting dangerous out there. I don’t need the haircut scene; I can just have Trisha announce her new project when Jillian makes it home.

Not all scenes are mentioned in the synopsis, but some are: the ones I already “see” vividly and want to write, the ones that use some choice bit of dialogue. Sadly, even those scenes sometimes need to bite the dust. That witty dialogue? Sorry, it’s not how these two characters talk. That thrilling fight scene? By the time I get to that point in the story I’ve already established that these two characters loathe each other; it’s not necessary to have one of them slug the other to create enmity.

The map is not the territory.

It is not universally true that scenes which are difficult to write are unnecessary. For me, the very dark scenes are difficult. I stopped writing Survivors for two weeks because I didn’t want to put Jillian through what the plot demanded. But that section needed to be just that dark, both because it was a logical consequence of previous actions and because it was necessary to set up what would come afterwards, so eventually I pulled up my socks and got on with it.

But quite frequently the scenes that are difficult to write are that way because they shouldn’t be there at all.

Are you struggling to write a scene that looked perfectly good when you planned it? Consider that your writerly instincts are warning you that this is an unnecessarily elaborate way of getting the information you want your reader to have, or that what looked interesting from a distance is boring when you get down to details. And bear in mind that if it’s not fun for you to write, it may not be fun for the reader either.

  1. I am a pantser so I can’t really say that this method works. Of course before I sit down to write something I usually have a fair idea what’s going to happen or where it might end up. Usually. most times by the time I get to that part of the map, things have gone a little sideways or I have a better idea about what the characters are really up to.
    I am bad for writing things down as well as I tend to do all my scene thinking in my head before committing to paper. This is going to come and haunt me later I think. Working on a story that had an awesome opening line that popped into my head, “It was raining whisky again.” All I know is that it’s going to be a mystery of some sort. Still not sure what Officer Bell is investigating, and neither does he.
    One WIP does have all the chapters laid out with one sentence information to ‘guide’ me. When I get back to it. If that’s where the story goes and I finish it.

    January 11, 2018
    • I’ve had a variant of this happen. When I can’t seem to plow through one part or another, it’s because something’s WRONG. It may not be a scene I have planned, but it may be that the fork the plot took is a dead end and I need to back trail and take the ‘other road’ somewhere. And sometimes I have to let go of things that were there at the beginning… and shouldn’t have been but I didn’t know that because I hadn’t gotten there yet.

      January 11, 2018
  2. The few times I’ve outlined and written a synopsis, the characters took over and about half-way through the outline got tossed. It may be that my subconscious associates outline too closely with non-fiction (I must outline non-fiction. No option. There is no pantsing an academic monograph with footnotes, diagrams, and the like.)

    OTOH I can see where a synopsis and rough outline could help flow, and might provide a much better way to stay on track and not wander off into scene weeds. I may end up lopping yet another chapter from a “finished” manuscript because the chapter detracts from the flow of the plot and the grand idea of the book.

    January 11, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Oh, as I go on with a book the original outline bears less and less resemblance to the actual book. One reason I can’t come up with a lot of examples of scenes that look better in the synopsis than in the book is that I do a sort of slash-and-burn editing on the synopsis as I progress, deleting the bits already written and rephrasing the rest in line with the current direction of the book.

      January 11, 2018
      • …I do a sort of slash-and-burn editing on the synopsis as I progress, deleting the bits already written and rephrasing the rest in line with the current direction of the book.

        Yes, I do this, too. My initial outline is more skeletal than yours, just a list of scenes, with a brief line summarizing each scene. But as I write, I usually discover “missing” scenes that need to go in, so I add them to my outline as they materialize. The further I get in the story, the more the initial outline loses relevance, so it’s in the last half of the outline I find myself deleting scenes that are no longer needed and add new scenes that are needed. I tend to say that my outlines shift like a river in flood.

        But I need the outline in order to start. And, so far, I’ve always ended up at the final outcome that I projected. But the path between start and finish has changed.

        January 11, 2018
    • Mary #

      My outlines tend to sprout excursions and filagree, but generally have the main plot down.

      I think of them as really, really, really rough first drafts.

      January 11, 2018
    • TRX #

      > get tossed

      I read an interview with Roger Zelazny. He mentioned that he wrote a backstory for every character in his books, and then wrote a little vignette of some sort to show each character interacting with the world.

      The vignettes were never intended to be published, and most of them never left his filing cabinet. But he did send some of them to SF fanzines, the same way writers will have “free samples” on the internet.

      Stuff you hack out of a story isn’t necessarily wasted effort if you can rework it into a “lost episode” or something…

      January 14, 2018
  3. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Yup. Just looked back on a stalled project and realized there was a whole subplot that seemed like a good idea at the time, but was contributing nothing and dragging the story down. Gone.

    January 11, 2018
  4. c4c

    January 11, 2018
  5. I need a starting point and an ending point, just so the rest of the utterly spontaneous journey sort of attempts to get there. Sometimes they don’t make, and find a better end point, but starting out, I need it.

    Now unnecessary scenes . . . yeah I just cut one. I squirmed around and tried to justify it, but when a Beta Reader questioned whether the time constrains on a very driven and concerned character really allows for a romantic scene . . . Out it went. But saved elsewhere. Ha! I’ll take a trick from the movies and stick a cut scene in the back.

    January 11, 2018
  6. I lost a lot of good scenes when I realized, a few years back, that six pov characters was double what I really needed. But I also realized I didn’t care about the three characters I dropped enough to try to shoehorn much of their material in anywhere else. With three main characters, I have plenty of drama.

    I added a very small number of scenes as I’ve been writing, but more for structural reasons – when too long a stretch went by without seeing a scene from one of the three characters’ pov, it felt awkward when that character came back in – and there was more work trying to provide continuity.

    I’m an extreme plotter, and I question everything. It was hard when I did some research lately – took four days, and there were very few bits that made it into the story – but otherwise it would have read as padding.

    We’ll see what the beta reader says. She gets it fresh, in one fell swoop, so she can tell if it feels unbalanced.

    January 11, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Glad to see another plotter here! I’m beginning to feel seriously outnumbered.

      January 11, 2018
      • I’m very glad to see one, too! It’s gotten to the point where I don’t think ANYONE plots like I do; I call myself an extreme plotter.

        Maybe we should form an association of our own – for support. What do you write? I write indie mainstream, which is also rare.

        January 11, 2018
        • Margaret Ball #

          I write sf/fantasy. Have just started experimenting with indie.

          January 11, 2018
          • Wecome to indie. It’s really a warm place, and people share a lot of information if you ask nicely.

            January 12, 2018
        • thephantom182 #

          Plotting would be very convenient, you know? Then I’d know who was supposed to be where, and what was going to happen.

          My detective character found a fricking shoe in an alley in Amsterdam. Now there’s a most of a book. With a werewolf in it.

          A sorcerer’s apprentice summoned a demonic werewolf from the darkest pit of the shadows, and it didn’t immediately eat him. Now there’s a book. This one has lippy giant spiders.

          Some guy gets really sick on a camping trip. He was stuck with the wrong test-tube full of goo by the incompetent alien probe, and he didn’t die like he was supposed to. That one turned into three books.

          This is a problem. No, really, it is. Stop laughing.

          January 12, 2018
          • If the ideas are turning into books, why are you messing with your process? Refine the process rather than gut it.

            Not laughing. Just curious.

            January 12, 2018
            • thephantom182 #

              I’m just playing around with you, Alicia. I don’t have a process. I just write, and then go back and take out the stupid parts. Usually the places where I’m trying to make something happen, and the characters are all saying “Nope, I would not do that in real life. Try again.”

              I’m one of those people whose brain never, -ever- shuts up. I take no credit, it just is that way.

              Some of these stories have been mutating and breeding in here for 30 years. Now that I have time, writing them down is a hoot. Also, I find if I write them, it gets a little quieter inside the brain. Should I actually sell any, that will be pretty cool too. Fingers crossed on that one.

              On the down side, all my other things like woodworking and messing with cars have essentially stopped. When I get home from holiday I plan to boycott writing for a couple weeks and do woodworking. A rather nice table has built up some intracranial pressure here and is trying to get out into the Real World.

              Ever have a table trying to get out? It is an interesting phenomenon. ~:)

              January 12, 2018
              • Ouch to the table. It’s hard enough getting words out, a few at a time.

                I’m glad you have lots of things you can do. I would love to, too, but there is no energy (CFS). I used to do so many things…

                I can write, in small chunks, over many days – and that keeps me sane.

                I love that it comes out, eventually, the way I like.

                Everyone else: enjoy your life – don’t put off until tomorrow traveling, learning, singing – anything that gives you joy.

                January 12, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      I think I’m a plotter, even though I don’t want to be. I want to just sit at the computer and write whatever is in my heart. Unfortunately, when I do that, I usually end up with about ten chapters or so setting up an exciting and mysterious situation and having no idea what’s behind the mystery or what should happen next. At that point, the project is abandoned; sometimes I come back to it, but often it’s gone for good.

      This year, I’m going to write with an outline including a plan for each chapter. I may leave a couple of chapters unoutlined, especially near the climax, to let me be creative, but for everything I do this year, I will know the solution to every mystery and the end of every story before I start.

      January 11, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        I’m not sure if my vignette’s count as outlined. I think everything else I’ve finished has needed plotting. I might be a plotting, but I’d need more complete testing to be sure.

        January 11, 2018
      • thephantom182 #

        Zsuzsa said: “…but for everything I do this year, I will know the solution to every mystery and the end of every story before I start.”

        I hope that works out, because having to discover the solution every time is a bit difficult. I’m probably doing it wrong. ~:D

        January 12, 2018
      • The important thing is: THE ENDING. Everything else, in a plotter’s book, is how to make that place feel right.

        For me, it’s easy to know if something belongs in the story because it is either crucial to the ending – or not. So I don’t end up with 40 years wandering in the desert and not get to the Promised Land.

        Fancy language – crucial? It gets to live. Character – crucial? Welcome to book.
        I know X, Y, and Z are happening in a scene – but I don’t know how and why until I write it. Some people think that kills creativity, but it’s the way I work.

        If I hadn’t published, and hadn’t been satisfied, I’d probably be questioning my writing process, but I put the work into it, and I like the results. Yay, indie!

        January 12, 2018
  7. I’m a proud pantser. The last time I tried to take notes, it turned into an 80k Novel.

    I gave up on notes and synopsis.

    January 11, 2018
  8. Draven #


    January 11, 2018
    • thephantom182 #


      January 12, 2018
  9. Mary #

    I found that scenes that were difficult to write were scenes that needed skills I needed to work on. Fortunately that’s eased. But there’s still the trauma part.

    January 11, 2018
  10. I started out as mostly a pantser, I had a few elements of the plot worked out and then I’d just go from there. But I’ve learned that when you’re trying to write 7K to 10K words a day, you just can’t do that. You have to have a lot of the plot figured out in advance, and definitely most of what you’re about to write, before you write it. Because you can’t take the time to stop to think about it if you are trying to keep the daily word count up.

    Now I’m still not fully there yet, as a plotter, and it’s my goal to become a much more solid plotter over the next year. I would like to get to the point where I know the basic plot points of each chapter, in proper time order before I even start the book (right now I’m only a few chapters ahead, and even then, some of it is still ‘fuzzy’ all the plot points are there before I start, they’re just not time ordered well).

    Because if I know what the story is doing before I get there, then I don’t have to take as many breaks, and I can give my characters freer reign in the story.

    So for me, at least, I’ve learned that there is a reason for plotting in advance.

    January 12, 2018

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