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Spotting Unnecessary Scenes

Series - Editing Your Books

On the surface, more words mean more pages, a thicker book and longer read which implies better value-for-money for your readers, and in theory more chance of buying it.

But filling a story with anything less than 100% purposeful copy is damaging for book sales and you the author, slowing the advance of the story and diluting the good parts.

Sure, an editor should identify the chaff, but can you do it for yourself? It’s easy to miss them, you’re too close to your work to be objective.

Recognising a redundant scene

This is not about poorly written scenes, or ones that are flat or boring, though they need to be identified and fixed. No, this is about scenes, even whole chapters, that although well written, serve no purpose in advancing the story. They can have the reader skimming over pages and losing faith in the writing.

Example: the protagonist visits the local supermarket to buy supplies for an important meal that evening – they’re depicted walking up and down aisles, picking out products, checking prices, putting things back; asking a member of staff if they have that ‘nice oak-smoked cheese’ found last week? Then sharing a joke at the checkout.

It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it’s real life, perhaps there’s an amusing moment; but unless it has relevance to the plot or character development, it’s self-indulgent and wasteful. It’s a fill-in scene.

And I know it can be a painful experience – that first time – removing something written as large as a whole scene, so you have to be brave. But how can you test your scenes to be sure?

Here’s my mantra for every scene:

Does this scene: Introduce, expand, explain, change, build suspense or move the plot forward? If not – CUT IT!

Finishing my first book, during editing, the initial chapters ended up no longer fitting together well. I swapped and changed the order, agonising over the problem for weeks.

Then it came it me…

The first chapter I’d ever written – needed to go. I couldn’t believe I was considering it. This was the chapter that started me writing and was even about the main character. It had been around for four years.

In the end I did, the problem went away and even improved the intrigue of the story.

Coming to terms with that deletion, of what seemed a crucial chapter, ending up improving the book, was a real wake-up call for me. If I could delete that, what else could go? In the end I removed over 6000 words from my first novel through unnecessary scenes. The story lost nothing, and the book was a better read.

What to do with deleted scenes

Rather than consigning them to the digital waste basket, here’s a couple of ideas for you:

  1. Can you lift part of the scene, a sentence, a paragraph that you really like, and use it elsewhere with a little editing? Even the next book!
  2. Engagement with your readership and fans is crucial to success as an author these days, so if you’re stuck for something to blog or post one week – give your fans a deleted scene as a freebie while they wait for your next book. It can initiate a good thread of discussion, and taking time to engage with readers in this way can turn them into fans. The piece may require some editing to be standalone, but perhaps much of it can be saved and used. I think of mine like outtakes. Just be wary of spoilers though, especially if the scene is taken from near the end of the book, some readers will see it before they’ve bought the book. Also ensure the scene is still true to the plot and characters in the parent book. And don’t be sloppy – it needs to be edited to the same standard.

Have you deleted scenes? How did you find the experience? Comment  in the section at the bottom of this page.

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Miles Allen Author picture
About Miles Allen

Changing careers from designer of hi-tech aircraft systems to follow a dream of becoming a fantasy author, Miles’ first book hit No 1 on Amazon for Epic Fantasy and knocked The Hunger Games from the top slot in Waterstones.

 Ten years on he runs a self-publishing business and provides coaching and services on writing and high-quality self-publishing. He also delivers a series of straight-talking courses (including at the Canterbury Christchurch University and North Kent College).

“It was great having Miles teaching to us today.
It’s given me some fantastic things to
think about – a very inspiring speaker,
thank you for a brilliant session.”

Emily Dorsett Beard

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