Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The single best piece of advice about writing prose is a piece of advice about writing poetry:
A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
– William Carlos Williams
Though a piece of prose is usually a bigger machine than a poem, the same rules apply. The words you use and the way you use them combine into a greater whole to create a meaningful story.
Words, paragraphs, scenes or even chapters you don’t need are at best pointless and at worst liable to interfere with everything good about your story.
And that would be shame.
So to prevent that from happening, here’s a 4-step pruning strategy to help you decide whether a passage deserves its place or needs to go.
Get your editor’s shears ready.
1. What purpose does it serve?
This question is a lot less harsh than people imagine.
To be necessary, and therefore worth including in the final draft, a section needs to serve some part of the greater piece. This could be character or story or it could be something as simple as mood. A scene which simply establishes mood or the tone of the writing can be entirely worthy of inclusion if it is successful.
Ed McBain’s 87th precinct books often feature passages which don’t affect the story or characters of the novel. In Tricks he details various crimes happening around the city on Halloween. While these crimes don’t impact the story they do establish the mood which has taken over the city, amping up the tension by showing that the violence of the story isn’t necessarily tied to rationality.
In this example these passages serve the mood of the story and do so brilliantly.
The first question when assessing if a scene deserves to stay is simple: does it serve a purpose at all? If you come up with a blank, then that scene is only hampering the narrative and needs to go.
2. Is its function necessary?
If a section does serve some aspect of your story, the next question is: how vital is that aspect?
Stephen King’s gigantic The Stand has had multiple releases, with great swathes of content being added. The passage named The Circle Opens details how an apocalyptic virus spread through the world but wasn’t included in the original release. Though The Circle Opens serves the story by adding to its prologue, this part of the story was never needed in the first place. It is telling that in his later book Cell the cause of the worldwide disaster is shrugged off as unimportant.
It’s not enough for a passage to tell us something, it also has to be something we need to know. Of course what we need to know varies by genre: it might be that the story focuses on the preparation of a meal and the description of every ingredient adds something. What counts as redundant information differs wildly from novel to novel but if the emotional effect of your story isn’t lessened when a section is taken out then you never needed that section.
So now your passage serves a specific, essential aspect of your story, but is it the only scene that does so?
3. Is its function unique?
If one passage has the effect you wanted you don’t need a second doing the same job. Yes your scene may serve characterization but if we already understand the character, is it really necessary?
Again this differs according to genre. It may be that you’re writing a gripping character study where every inflection and memory has relevance but even then making the exact same point twice is redundant.
Oddly it can be helpful to think of every detail as if it’s geographic. You wouldn’t point out that a village is an old mining town twice because the repetition would stick out like a sore thumb. Likewise we don’t need two passages exploring why the main character has certain character traits if the second doesn’t offer substantively more information.
There is a difference between redundant repetition and necessary consistency:
Consistency – Having a character be overly cautious. Checking details, avoiding unlikely dangers, being the voice of reluctance in discussions.
Repetition – Explaining multiple times that a character is cautious because they once knocked over a lamp and their village burned down.
This is why novels usually skip the part of the story where someone explains a plan we already know.
If your section passed the previous tests, ask now if it serves a subject substantively when considered alongside the rest of the novel. What is the vital service it offers to the narrative that no other section offers? Write down the unique input this section has for the reader and then decide whether that input is worth the words used to explain it.
What do you do if it isn’t? Well…
4. Can you combine it?
Sometimes a scene has input which you want in the story but not enough to justify its own scene. When that’s the case the best thing to do is to try and mix it with another scene to produce a section which serves multiple parts of the story.
Have one scene where we find out a character is married and another where we find out someone is coming to visit? Amalgamate them into a single scene where the inclusion of one leads into or triggers the inclusion of the other.
This may sound cumbersome and it’s where subtly of writing comes into play. To amalgamate scenes you have to take two scenes which are about one thing and create one scene which is about both.
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations begins with these lines:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This passage serves the story by establishing the main character’s name, age and perhaps very subtly his social standing (would an upper class Philip Pirrip come to be called Pip?) It serves the narrative by placing the reader at the beginning of a narrator’s life, suggesting the kind of story that is going to be told and the narrative approach that will be used.
It serves characterization by positioning him as young and authentically flawed: the inability to pronounce his name and thus access his own identity characterizes him both as a believable child and as someone of little power.
Lesser writers might have done these things separately: a passage on his age, a passage establishing the link between his youth and powerlessness and a passage introducing the text as ‘my life story’.
While not every writer can, or should, be Dickens this does serve as an example of how passages can serve multiple aspects of a piece. It also begs the question: if this short passage can do so much how defensible is a scene where characters sit around just chewing the fat?
If your passage passes each of these 4 stages then congratulations, it’s earned its place.
Cutting out redundant passages can be difficult but if you commit to it you’ll end up with the kind of story where readers pore over every sentence. When every section is essential the reader’s interest never lets up and you have the kind of story that can’t be put down.Are Unnecessary Scenes And Passages Ruining Your Story?Click To Tweet
For more on the merits of minimalism try our article on How Many Characters Should a Novel Have? Or for the aspects of your story that can be served by an epilogue there’s Writing an Epilogue (how to get it right).