How to know when to cut a scene from your novel
Hang out with writers or editors for any amount of time and you’re bound to hear the phrase:
When I first started out, I thought the quote was literally referring to killing your characters. Since I write romance, not suspense or anything that would ever require me killing off characters, I disregarded the quote as “not for me.”
Eventually, however, as I became more “in the know,” I realized that “kill your darlings” is actually a bit more metaphorical, and thus applicable to all of us writers, regardless of genres.
Killing your darlings means knowing when to cut scenes, chapters, characters, or subplots from your story. It means highlighting a section of your manuscript and hitting … delete.*
*Actually, never delete your words. When you decide to cut something, cut it literally, and then the section into a separate document. You never know when that section was all wrong in Chapter Three is exactly what Chapter Seven needs, and you’ll be supremely annoyed with yourself if you have to rewrite words, when you could simply be copying/pasting them.
So, why is cutting content so hard? Because writing is hard. We all know the agony of a blank page, we all know that hitting our target wordcount for the day sometimes (often) feels like sweating blood. So the thought of choosing to remove some of those words feels almost unthinkable.
But it’s sometimes necessary.
Now, I’ll be very upfront here: I’m not terribly experienced at killing my darlings. Why? I tend to write short, meaning that my first draft is extremely bare bones, and almost always comes in 5-10,000 words under what the final draft will end up being.
I’ve learned from my various editors over the years that this style of writing is a little unusual. More common, apparently, is a manuscript that’s overlong. Thus, while most (or at least many) authors receive editorial notes on what needs to be cut, I tend to receive feedback on what needs to be added. In fact, I actually don’t know that I’ve ever received a note to cut something from my book, but that could be because …
I know when to do it myself in the first draft stage.
I have a few novels under my belt now, so usually I know when a scene needs to get the axe even before I’ve finished it.
So what’s the secret?
How do you know when to cut a section of your precious novel?
Well, the most common bit of advice, and it’s good advice, is to cut anything that:
a) doesn’t present new information to the reader
b) doesn’t move the story forward
And that sounds really good on paper.
But when you’re in the middle of a story, whether it’s the planning stage, or the actual writing stage, it can sort of be hard to know.
For example, maybe you’ve got two scenes relatively close together. One is the heroine arguing with her sister, the other is the heroine arguing with her mother.
If you ask yourself if it moves the story forward, you may be thinking, “Hmm, not really? Sort of?”
And then if you ask yourself if each scene presents new information, you think, “Well, yes, one shows that her sister’s condescension is the reason for her self-worth issues, and the second shows that her mother is the reason the sister’s can’t get along in the first place.”
So, do you keep both? Or cut one?
So here’s how I decide whether the scene/chapter I’m working needs to be cut (or at least, be majorly rewritten). I ask myself one simple question:
Am I bored?
Because darling, if you’re bored?
Chances are your reader will be too.