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.