This week, I’m trying something new on the blog: a segment called Dear Cee, in which I answer I question I received via email, DM, comment, or otherwise. The first Dear Cee is from a colleague who’s wrestling with a Contemporary Romance manuscript and trying to work out whether/how a scene ought to be cut.
If you’ve ever wondered why a developmental editor might suggest a scene-level cut—or how an editor might go about performing one—read on!
I have a question about “killing darlings.”
Let’s say an author’s manuscript has a long chapter in which the FMC (female main character) and her two friends go out to party on a boat. The only thing that happens during the trip is a conversation about the FMC’s ex-boyfriend and her hot new (MMC) neighbor. The chapter shows the closeness of their relationships, but doesn’t progress the plot or add any tension.
Should a chapter like this be cut? My gut says ‘yes,’ but I’m not sure how to approach this with the author!
You’re almost certainly right, so the questions are:
- How much of that information is necessary to character development / to understand the rest of the story?
- Could the author cut the entire chapter and not lose anything meaningful? (in that case, chop chop)
- Do we need character and relationship progression there, but the scene fails to add anything to the story because it’s a ‘diner’ conversation (ie: had while eating/drinking/hanging out with little external motion)?
I suspect the issue is a combination of the above three factors. Granted, I haven’t read the source text myself, so I’m making guesses, but I’ll go out on a limb and pinpoint the following issues:
- The reader probably doesn’t need to know all of the information that gets presented in the friends’ dialogue
- Most of the dialogue is snappy back-and-forth, ie: literal reportage of what the author heard in their head while they were writing
- This snappy back-and-forth feels like talking heads by the end of the scene, which drowns out important or interesting character-building information.
These tend to be ‘darling’ scenes. They’re fun, the author enjoyed writing them, they show the characters interacting and having a good time. We’re loath to cut these moments in our writing because they give us the warm-fuzzies, and it’s easy to conflate I love this scene with I need this scene. Self-editing is hard!
But your author would be happy to know that, while I’m leaning towards ‘cut it,’ there could be enough important contained to justify keeping (and rewriting) it. If you suspect that’s the case, I have another set of questions:
- What aspect of the Big Three elements of story (plot, character, worldbuilding) are advanced in this scene?
- Can those elements be worked into surrounding scenes in order to chop this one?
- If not, is there a more conflict-driven, high-stakes way to approach the reveal of this vital information?
On the surface, this scene sounds like a candidate for either a wholesale cut or a drastic reduction: it moves slowly, it only advances one element of the Big Three, it lacks conflict/stakes. But—if this is the only in-scene relationship development between the FMC and her friends, cutting it might leave their friendship on shaky legs.
What if the author was right to include a character-building scene, but the execution is flawed? What would need to change in order to turn this ‘darling’ scene into one that drives the narrative forward?
Kill your darlings, then bring them back to life
Like zombies. But better.
When giving ‘darlings’ a new lease on life, we must identify what information the author conveys. Mark and set aside important dialogue exchanges, moments of action, and snippets of interiority that need to make it through to the next draft.
Next, take a step back. Look at those important bits, and ask the author “how else can you string together these pieces?”
I’m operating under the assumption, based on the nature of the question, that this is a ‘bonding’ scene. These types of scenes often cause problems, not because character bonding is irrelevant to plot, but because of how the bonding happens. The easiest way for characters to share information is through dialogue, which is why we end up with so many sit-down conversations in our rough drafts. But sit-down conversations tend to drag, and moreover, they aren’t the fastest way to show the bond those characters have.
People bond through hardship, which is another way of saying conflict—ie: the driving engine of narrative traction. When adding conflict into a dialogue heavy scene, many authors reach first for a natural next step: make the characters have an argument.
This is a possible solution, but it’s often a trap. If the scene is already too dialogue-heavy, adding more dialogue (even if it’s high-conflict dialogue) won’t necessarily fix it.
So, how else can we add conflict into a dialogue-heavy scene?
- A ticking clock
- An obstacle
In other words: incorporate an action element to replace, contextualize, and balance the scene’s dialogue.
When I edit, I ensure the author understands 1) why I believe the structure of a scene isn’t serving their story, and 2) offer multiple solutions for how the author can address the issue. I try to recommend a way to ‘save’ a scene unless I believe, from the bottom of my soul, that it has to hit the chopping block. In this case, I’d give an example of a way to add a ticking clock or obstacle in order to provide the tension necessary to carry a relationship-building scene.
In this case, let’s say:
- The FMC has promised to dog-sit for the MMC that evening (ticking clock), and
- The boat’s engine breaks down (obstacle).
Though in some genres, these obstacles will be life-threatening, they absolutely don’t have to be! All we need is a little shock or scare that gives the characters a reason to rally together, bond (or bond further), and reveal information in an organic way that doesn’t read like a conversation included for the reader’s benefit.
For the purpose of the example, let’s say the boat’s engine breaks down. This would give the characters a reason to talk about the FMC’s hot new neighbor (MMC), because if they can’t get back to shore in time, she’s going to ruin his night by failing to show up to dogsit for him. Even better—what if they don’t have cell reception, so she can’t even let him know what’s happening?
Was the FMC’s ex good with engines? Does she momentarily bemoan their breakup only for her friends to leap on the offensive and remind her what a no-good cheater he was?
Sure, this could be a scary moment: they’re adrift and panicking as the sun starts to set and the waves get bigger. Or, it could be a lighthearted, zany adventure as they find a handheld VHF, charge it, and make a radio call to the coast guard. What if, when the tow boat comes, the captain is young and attractive, and one of the friends flirts outrageously with him—and teases the FMC when she won’t join in on the fun, saying her ‘heart is spoken for’ by her hot neighbor?
There’s a reason why friend groups often get involved in antics in books/movies/tv: antics are fun, they provide an in-scene way to show relationship dynamics to the reader, and they almost always result in a conflict the group needs to overcome in order to reach their scene-level goal.
Tie it all in
To recap: the best thing for the story might be to cut the scene entirely. But if that’s not the case, the author must find a way to tie the events of that scene into either an external plot or subplot, creating moments of action that have a ripple effect on scenes. The easiest ways to add tension are through a ticking clock or an obstacle—preferably both!
This author’s order of operations becomes:
- Identify a goal for the FMC that will carry her through the boat scene and into the rest of the story. Does this goal—or a sub-goal beneath it—carry a ticking clock? Even better.
- Put an obstacle into the boat scene that will force failure on the ticking clock goal.
- Hijinks ensue as the friends rally around FMC to help her meet her goal.
- Use this as an opportunity to work the important conversation, action, and interiority that was flagged as ‘must save’ from the original draft.
- Allow the FMC to have a partial win (she doesn’t get stranded at sea, hooray!) with a defeat immediately chasing its heels (she is egregiously late to dog sit, so the MMC missed his evening obligation).
- Does the MMC get upset about this? Probably! This ties into the romantic plot’s ‘push’ factors (the MMC thinks she’s a flake; the FMC thinks he’s an uptight, unforgiving jerk).
- This partial defeat can also tie into the next step of the external pot (how does the FMC make it up to the MMC? This gives them an opportunity to connect further!).
Naturally, this tweak with the engine breakdown and the dog sitting might not work for the author, and that’s totally okay. In editorial work, our suggestions aren’t The Only Way to ‘fix’ a story. Instead, they’re fleshed-out examples that show the author how altering an element of the story will strengthen it, hopefully paving the way for them to plug-and-play their own solution.
The details of the change itself aren’t important. We can change them to anything: one of the FMC’s friends falls overboard and the MMC is a member of the Coast Guard, for example, or the FMC breaks something on the boat and has a blow-out fight with the friend who owns the boat, which reveals a lot about the FMC’s backstory in the process.
Whatever the author chooses, the result is the only thing that matters, and that’s a scene which reveals both the FMC’s backstory and the bond she shares with her friends, while generating conflict/stakes and connecting back to the external plot.
Support the blog
Did you find this blog helpful? Consider becoming a patron to support Cee’s writing!