by Joseph Lallo
One of the first and most important lessons likely to come from any sort of writing instruction is this: Don’t waste words. In short fiction, you don’t have the words to spare. Spend too much time talking about something that doesn’t matter to the plot and pretty soon your tight little short story is a sprawling novella. If you write comics, pointless digressions can grow into filler arcs that lose readers. Even in screenplays and stage productions, efficient storytelling is key.
“Chekhov’s Gun” states that if there’s a gun hanging on the mantle in the first act, it should be fired by the third or it shouldn’t be hanging there. Lessons that call for concise writing echo through the forums and across twitter threads. They all boil down to: if you don’t need to write a scene, don’t write it. But comparatively rare is the answer to the obvious followup question.
What makes a scene worthwhile? Let’s go through a few obvious reasons to include a scene, and then we’ll discuss one or two that don’t get quite so much attention.
This might be the most important rule of thumb available to a writer. Every scene should contain elements that advance the plot. A strict interpretation of this rule is: If you can remove an entire scene and the characters and reader would still have all of the information necessary to solve the mystery, overcome the obstacle, or defeat the foe, then the scene doesn’t need to be there.
On the surface, this seems obvious, but it would surprise you how often even skilled writers can miss the mark. Epic Fantasy writers, military thriller writers, and hard sci-fi writers are prone to tangents and detailed digressions. Read enough epics and you’re sure to run into multipage literary meanderings. These talk about the history of a kingdom, spouting the lines of succession through dozens of generations. They share heaps of political intrigue that never come into play elsewhere.
A military writer might decide that a scene where the characters spot a helicopter is necessary. Then they lapse into a chapter long description of the motivations behind shifting from two blades to five. They show how revolutionary the counter rotating props were. Then onward through the tale without another mention of that helicopter or any other. None of these things bring the characters a step forward. They represent a lapse in pace, and by rigid application of this rule, they shouldn’t be there.
But those are passages, not necessarily scenes, right? A story without any flavor or indulgence would be an awfully dry account. So long as there’s something in those scenes that moves the plot forward, they can stay, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. It all comes down to if the plot advancement feels natural.
Let’s take the helicopter example. It’s only unnecessary if the helicopter itself isn’t relevant. Spending three pages describing a war machine that roars through the sky at a pivotal moment is absolutely necessary. Suddenly, an indulgent example of showing your homework becomes a key piece of audience education. Your reader now knows what sort of threat this craft represents. An action scene can be tighter and faster with that information laid out.
Likewise, the history and line of succession in the epic. Let's say a diplomat in chapter 4 has the same name as an heir to the throne that was denied. Your reader now knows there may be dangerous ambition or good old-fashioned revenge driving their actions. These are two examples of important information coming into the story in a natural and flavorful way.
A novice writer–and sometimes even a veteran–might try to take the easy way out by adding a line or two, adding a plotpoint that doesn’t flow naturally from the rest of the scene. That’s a way to check the “plot advancement” box and thus justify otherwise fluffy and pointless prose. If the narrator waxes poetic about military aircraft for half a chapter, then receives a phone call. A bomb has been found across town. Is that a scene that moves the plot forward? It’s certainly a sentence that moves the plot forward, but if it feels tacked on, the reader will know.
If you must include flowery prose or dense information dumps, there are ways to justify those even in the absence of plot points, however.
The plot isn’t the only thing that makes a book worth reading. Plot points aren’t the only things that are essential to a story. When a hero risks her life to protect a former enemy, finally turning that enemy into an ally, that scene won’t make sense unless the reader has seen and felt the hero’s reasons for such a selfless act. Someone doing something out of character to advance the plot is in many ways a far bigger crime than including a juicy scene where nothing important happens. One is inefficient storytelling. The other is lazy storytelling.
Character development is every bit as important as plot development, and it can serve as justification for including any number of things that simply wouldn’t make a scene important enough to keep.
Back to the helicopter. Putting a lavish description of mounted machine guns and missile pods in the narration could feel unnecessary. But put it in the mouth of a character, speaking passionately about the aircraft he used to work on in his days as an engineer? Now you’ve included the same information, but it’s done double duty of providing backstory for a character, revealing what excites them. Now your character is a little nerdy. If you play it carefully and make their enthusiasm come across, you could even make it drag on longer than would otherwise be called for in order to exasperate the other characters.
An info dump becomes a charming scene that arms your cast with knowledge and skills. Even if that helicopter doesn’t matter for the plot, now you have a mechanic on your team who might just know how to fix the jeep and get the crew out of a jam.
Bloviating info-dump characters can even serve a purpose in the absence of other skills. Our epic fantasy historian who knows oh-so-much about the lineage of the local patriarch can talk the ear off a scheming diplomat at a party, serving as a crucial distraction so the other heroes can act. Weaponized info-dumps can be great for a laugh, and if you’re feeling really efficient, you can even layer this lesson with the last one and include key information in the info dump. Having a character that everyone tunes out as they drone on about trivia casually mention an exploitable weakness is a plot advancing and character advancing moment.
This isn’t a silver bullet. If you assign one or more characters to info-dump, it can get old fast, and can be just as transparent as tacking on the plot element at the end of the scene. As always, it needs to feel natural, and feel worth it.
Worth remembering, though, is that finding something worthwhile is important from the point of view of the writer, but the writer’s point of view isn’t the only one that matters.
Now let’s talk about some reasons for scenes that the more austere writers might leave out. The first and perhaps most often overlooked is, quite simply, if the audience wants the scene. Once more, we look to the helicopter.
Military thrillers attract a specific audience. And a big slice of that audience is in it for the details. A casual reader’s eyes may glaze over at page five of the description of the chain-feeding mechanism for the vulcan cannon’s ammo, but die-hards will eat that up. A treatice on the stealth bomber might not appeal to something meant for a broad readership, but sub-genres exist for a reason. If you know your readers want to know the exact make and model of the pistol on the sergeant’s hip, then that is a key element of the book even if it isn’t a key element of the story.
Different genres have different literary garnish that they crave. Can you fade out the sex scene, shutting the bedroom door and skipping to morning without losing anything important to the plot? Sure. But if you’re writing a steamy romance rather than a sweet one, you just missed a golden opportunity to pay off what many readers saw as the reason for the book. No plot. Maybe even no character, but that bedroom scene was without a doubt an indispensable part of the trajectory of the story and the relationships.
An argument can be made that just because you can get away with something ostensibly unnecessary doesn’t mean you should. Layering in character and plot relevance to those indulgent niche features will make them better. But something doesn’t need to be all things for everyone in order to justify its place on the page.
That being said…
It seems silly in an essay explaining the need to keep pace quick and tight to talk about slowing things down, but it needs to be said. I’ll put my money where my mouth is and give you an example from my own writing.
The Book of Deacon is an epic fantasy series that's largely responsible for my writing career. I intended it to be a single titanic book, but split it into the first three books in the series. This meant that, in essence, book 3 was one big third act. A 150,000 word climax. Now, we can talk about whether or not this was a good idea (it wasn’t) but the end result was a lot of battles, a lot of high-speed travel, and a lot of resolving plot threads that had woven together over two other books. That book contains most of the major battles. But it also contains “The Farmhouse Scene.”
There comes a moment between two rescues that the heroes need to rest. They find a barn near a farmhouse and settle down for the night. One of them lets her curiosity get the better of her and slips inside, leading to a face-to-face meeting with an average citizen of this world. Nothing of real importance happens in this scene. A character removes an annoying shackle. A plot irrelevant character is treated for a withering disease.
I could easily have moved straight from one rescue to the next, and this scene would not have been missed. Do characters develop? Yes, but nothing revelatory. Do we see how far the heroes have come from where they started? Yes, but the reader has been with them along the way and has seen that path. Yet the Farmhouse scene comes up again and again as a favorite among readers.
Why? Because after so much battle, so many triumphs and hardships, it is a moment to relax. It provides a place for the reader to take a break, collect their thoughts, and reflect. And maybe most importantly, it provides contrast. Raw speed and intensity in a plot can make it hard to elevate toward a climax. But taking a moment to breathe can reset, allowing you to escalate toward a final showdown and have it feel like a new high, even if it’s only a return to the norm.
In TV shows, you might call these bottle episodes. Self-contained, effectively inconsequential, but often unique and memorable. After Picard is rescued from being a Borg, he hangs out at the family vineyard for an episode. Walter White, amid his rise toward being a drug kingpin, really needs to deal with that fly in the lab.
As with all things, it still needs to be good. If you can get some plot advancement, great. And you should certainly use this slowdown to provide some character introspection or interaction. But a little break in the pace can be the perfect setup for the final sprint.
Pros can often discourage new writers by telling them to kill their darlings and cut the fluff from a story. That fluff often contains the parts that an author is most excited about. But hopefully this analysis has helped show how to turn the scenes that might feel heavy and pointless into the gems that people remember when the story is told.
If a scene is important to you, as a writer it’s your job to make it important to the reader. Weave your scenes into the story. Add a rung to the ladder right in the center of that scene in the place where it makes the most sense. Have that little nugget of gold be perfectly in character to gush about. Find the audience that can’t live without your juicy lore. And if you’ve been sprinting for long enough, fill a nice little lull with a heartwarming moment for its own sake. So long as it’s natural, and it feels like it belongs, then it’s earned its place and the readers will adore it.
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Joseph R. Lallo took a crooked path to authordom. He was educated at NJIT, where he earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and paid his bills in the world of Information Technology until Sept of 2014, when he finally became a full-time storyteller. The international bestseller The Book of Deacon defined his early career, and he has since written dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas. These include the critically acclaimed Steampunk series Free-Wrench and the thrilling sci-fi adventure saga, Big Sigma.
Outside of writing, he has co-hosted multiple self-publishing podcasts over the years, including the Six Figure Authors podcast with Lindsay Buroker and Andrea Pearson and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast.
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A fantastic post. It helps to explain about cutting unnecessary scenes and when one should and (maybe) should not.
As writers we are so often given a 'rule' with nothing more. 'Kill your darlings', 'The road to hell is paved with adverbs', 'decide who is your perfect reader' etc. But more often than not, these so-called rules are not explained.
Many thanks for explaining at least one of them.
Great post with important reminders.
Thanks so much for this, Joseph! I've seen how your books come together and I treasure those character development scenes!
Thank you, for this helpful post, Joseph!
You've assisted me in a decision about a particular chapter in my WIP. The information within it is necessary to better understand the protagonist's motivation. I'm keepin' it.
This blog post is a keeper. Lots of great information.