“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favorite scene, or your very best idea or set piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable.” – Joss Whedon.
When I decided to begin writing a few years ago, I began reading as much as I could on the craft of writing as well. Believe me, there is no shortage of advice out there. Occasionally, I would find one bit of information, which in just a few words or sentences, would convey a profound truth. The above quote from Joss Whedon is one such gem.
I soon discovered that stories and the scenes within them can get away from us as we write them. This is how it happens to me. One of the ways I like to combat the dreaded writer’s block is to write ‘garbage’ scenes. If I can’t figure out how to get to my next plot point, I will keep going by writing my characters doing mundane things like having dinner, doing their laundry, shopping or something like that. This often helps me think my way through to the important stuff and the garbage can be edited out later. Occasionally, though, I will have written a part that I rather like. Perhaps something funny happens at the grocery store or the washing machine malfunctions and hijinks ensue. I may have crafted a witty or clever bit of dialogue between two characters, or maybe the conversation my character has in his head is poignant or thought provoking, giving us a glimpse into their background or personality. It seems a shame to cut that stuff out.
Unfortunately, just because we love it doesn’t mean it will work for the story. And that is why we have to be brutally honest with ourselves. Ask: does this scene help the story move along? Do we need to know this information? Does it help the plot develop? Or is it apropos of nothing? And don’t mistake what I mean, garbage scenes aren’t necessarily garbage writing, they are just not useful to the story. And there is no reason not to save the scene to modify for future use in another project. Nevertheless, extra material that does not in a substantial way contribute to the plot, the background or the atmosphere of the story has to go. Snip, snip…
Another experience you may have, especially if you are the sort of writer who has a detailed plot worked out ahead of time, is that you reach a point in the story where a flash of inspiration hits you and you see the story winding down a completely different path. This new idea is much better from the one you began with and you decide to go with it. The trouble is that not everything you’ve written previously will now work with the direction you’re taking. If you read along with Breaking Bread, you may remember this happening in the midst of that story. I did quite a bit of brutal revising about halfway through it. However, the revisions were absolutely worth the time and effort as I am much happier with it now. (Just got word from my editor that he’s happy with it, too!) The worst thing you can do is ‘force’ the new plot to conform to the previously written material. It will be messy, it won’t flow naturally and very likely, it won’t make a whole lot of sense. Remember, writing is not a sprint to the finish. You may walk, trudge, limp or even crawl across the finish line, as long as you cross it with the best manuscript you are capable of writing.
Wishing you happy writing and productive (even if it’s brutal) editing.
(Blah blah image via TV Tropes.)