Scene Slashing

Every Saturday morning I travel thirty miles to my writing class in beautiful Summerland, that tiny resort village next to small but chic Montecito, California. For three hours or so I sit at a table, sometimes like the one above or a folding table, with coffee in a cup twice the size of the one above. I look forward to the class, I like everyone there and enjoying hearing the 5 to 10 pages the other six writers bring to share. That is until last Saturday.


It wasn’t them, it was me. I read a three page jail scene that I thought had realistic detail, created a ‘jail like ambiance’, and I thought it was important to the story, after all the protagonist had just been arrested for driving under the influence.


Hit the buzzer, uh….wrong. My instructor, who’s usually mellower than mellow immediately said,


“What is this scene for? How is it relevant to the story…You should have gotten that out of your system with the Juana story…” (reference to a second manuscript about prison). I could have sworn a look of disappointment crossed his face and I hadn’t seen that look before when I read. No one else said a word. It was the last ten minutes of class so I understand that we had to go on. The next person didn’t fare any better either. Instructor repeatedly asked “No story yet…no story yet…” until the writer hit the place where the story really began.


My instructor has written several books and is highly esteemed in writing circles. I know he was correct in what he said, but- yes there’s the but- the scene was written for a reason. I just had to think about it.Not think about the instructor comments, but remember why the heck I had written that scene and kept it in several revisions.  I’ve been doing a lot of scene slashing in the past two months, so there must have been a reason I kept that one. Then it dawned on me, I failed to get across the message in terms of what scenes are supposed to communicate.


I returned to my teachers latest book, “The Fiction Lover’s Companion,” and looked up “The Scene.” I hadn’t read that far yet, but it’s no excuse. This is what he said:


     “The character in the scene has to have an agenda and expectations…a segment of dramatic engagement in a particular setting where personalities and goals collide, producing a sense of movement toward a resolution or trial. There has to be something in the scene to propel the story further…” (TFLC).


Sol Stein, in “Stein on Writing,” says a scene should be “…an integral incident with a beginning and end…action and dialogue.” In “Manuscript Makeover,” the problem scenes have no clear goal, minor goals with insignificant matters, passive, or the obstacle is absent. 


Holly Lisle, creator of “One Pass Manuscript,” says the scene belongs if it address your theme or one of your sub-themes, contains action, conflict, and change, develops one or more of your characters and moves your story forward. ” Even if the scene involves your two main characters, but they’re carrying out action that has nothing to do with what your story is about, does not develop them as characters, and does not move the main story conflict or address any of the sub-themes, cross the whole thing out.”


After reading those definitions, there was no more pondering about what I had to do. There were three elements I wanted to get across but I failed to do so and they did meet the criteria of an important scene. I’d overwritten the scene and got caught up in making it real, instead of concentrating on the reasons the scene needed to be there in the first place. It was easy to make a list of important elements to include but harder to decide how to incorporate them into the jail scene.


I re-wrote the scene and sent it off to a trusted writing friend to ask for her opinion. She’s in my writing group so she heard the discussion. If the revision doesn’t make it as a scene, it has to be slashed and put on the burn pile, like so many others. Whether I love it or not. At least I’ll feel I gave it a good ‘trial,’ before I sentenced it to death. 



Categories: Cutting scenes, Revision, Scenes, Writing

1 reply

  1. Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too much
    time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    Like

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