BY NANCY KAY CLARK
editor/publisher of CommuterLit
Copyright is held by the author.
Often when reading through the first draft of a novel or story I am critiquing — or indeed writing — I find it helpful to imagine the characters and action up on screen. If I can’t picture the scene, the characters or the dialogue making the final cut, I know something has to change.
It’s amazing how we get so caught up in writing about our characters, who they are, and where they come from that whole scenes or chapters go by without anything actually happening, or the pace is so slow that before we know it half our audience has left.
I ask myself these questions when writing a scene:
1. Have I written a scene or a character sketch? Do the main characters in the scene have motivations and goals throughout?
2. How much exposition have I put in and how much can I eliminate without confusing my readers? Many editors and writing coaches will tell you to eliminate all exposition, but I find different genres have different standards.
3. Does the descriptions add to the scene or merely slow the pace down? What can I cut, and what can I keep as a telling detail? Telling details are like close ups on the screen: those few descriptive words that sum up the entire setting, or character or subtly foreshadow what’s going to happen next.
4. Does the dialogue further the plot, narrative arc or understanding of the characters? Has the same information been conveyed to the readers more than once? If I have a character who is recounting to another character what she did in the previous chapter, it will be repetitive to readers and will merely slow the pace. Dialogue that does not further the plot or character development should be cut.
5. Does the action in the scene serve the plot or character development? If not, I cut the scene. If it does, I ask myself, how important is the action? How much space within the story should it take up? Sometimes I have a big scene in which a character goes to a meeting to find out something that he could have found out through a phone call, email or text. Instead of taking a page and half, the scene could have taken three sentences. In contrast, sometimes I have cut the scene too quickly and I need to expand it.
And always when I think of my story as a movie, I can see more clearly the giant holes in my plot and the characters who are out of focus and perhaps unnecessary.