Ways to Tell What “Isn’t Needed”
I have to say I’m not a fan of having something explained to as it not being “needed.” The phrase proves fairly vague and, well, not very descriptive. In my perspective, it’s a fiction book. None of it is needed. The world would not be worse off if it was never written. I don’t care if it’s Lord of the Rings or Romeo and Juliet, if we didn’t have that, we’d just have something else to take its place. Entertainment has its purpose, but it takes too many forms to be considered a necessity, because it’s not like we’re going to die without books, or even be able to find a satisfactory spares.
But, while editing, we find ourselves with the problem of what’s important and what isn’t, what should be cut and what should be changed. To solve an issue with the work, there are an infinite number of choices to be made. We don’t like the character? We could delete him, change his gender, cut some dialogue, alter the backstory, edit the perception the characters have of him, or even change his name, each option being completely viable possibility.
When we say something “isn’t needed,” it’s a nice way of trying to tell the author there is a problem, and that problem is solved by cutting. If, in reality, an extra scene had no negative consequences, then there would be no reason to get rid of it. Often, however, what the advisor means is the scene has costs that are indirectly influenced by its existence, at least when he’s telling the truth. Things like, the story is too long and this is an easy cut. Or, more likely, he is not being upfront and he really means there is something wrong with it (it’s boring) and it is an easy cut. If, however, it’s not boring and the book isn’t too long, but it’s not interesting or too short, then leaving it as is as much of an option as changing it. In the hypothetical situation that it stands completely neutral, it really, truly doesn’t matter if it’s in there or not.
The thing is, when it’s someone else telling you to delete something, there’s certain benefits. The big one is they are narrowing down your options, for one. The problem really arises not when someone else has told us our scene is irrelevant, but when we have to decide, for ourselves, what we should cut, or simply how to flesh it out, because the issue is not to decide if you agree or disagree, it’s coming up with an opinion in the first place.
-Every scene should develop one or more of the follow: Character, tone, setting, plot, or theme.
Now, technically, an author could easily say that anything furthers one of the five. The important thing is to not lie to yourself, especially when the only one you’re talking to is yourself.
Do you feel the scene actually develops one of these elements, or do you feel that the scene just could? If it’s the latter, it means that it, in all likelihood, it doesn’t.
It can get confusing because a good story has such complex and complicated settings, characters, plots, and themes, that yes, you could attribute him going to the bathroom as a reference to one of those things. The best way to tackle this is to remember that you are a good writer and pretending that workload isn’t an issue. Therefore, you won’t feel bad when you put in a scene you decided is pointless, and the issue of having to do it won’t be as big of a factor.
-A million things happened to these characters in their lifetime. Why is the narrator choosing to describe this moment at this time?
-To illustrate the deliberate and, more importantly “I put a lot of thought into this” that is indicative of quality, everything requires more than one reference. If the point is your character is shy, his shyness needs to be illustrated at least three times, even if it’s just a form of development and not relevant to the plot. Does the scene only say one thing, and does that thing ever come up again?
-Nothing changes from the scene before to the scene after.
Is there any piece of information in the scene that changes something in the story? Are the characters now angry with each other, which motivates their unwillingness to help? Can they not continue in the same direction they could before? Do they have a new motivator to help them come up with a plan and energy?
Every scene should have a growing effect on the story, whether it be mood, objectives, strategy, or even the reader’s understanding and perception of the world or the characters. If a scene “resets,” akin to the way a television episode would, often that means it can be cut easily.
Of course, that’s not always the case. Sometimes a scene will constantly be referenced later on, or it will have super big events happen, in which case a cut would mean a complete rewrite of later work.
If the latter is the case, it still means that the scene is okay as is. The optimal choice, when cutting is not an option, is to add more information in (about the setting, characters, or any of the others) and have your story deal with the ramifications of the event. Some are now mad at each other, some are grieving or scared, some feel guilty, they are now wanted by the law, or another character has a vengeance against them.
Sometimes the best change will demand a whole new direction for the book to take, and it’s important to recognize that while that isn’t the only choice, it is still something to consider, despite it going against your original vision. It’s a hard path to take, so many authors will limit themselves to less desirable routes for the sake of less work or even fear of ruining what they already have.
-When this piece of information is repeated, fleshed out, and shown several times, does it deliver something else the reader didn’t know before?
On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes a scene can be superfluous if it reveals a piece of information everyone already knows. Now, as I just said, it is beneficial to discuss a topic, such as a character’s vanity, more than once, but there is a difference between cementing and being repetitive.
Every time a singular piece of information is similarly re-discussed in order to reinforce an idea, it should also add something that the audience didn’t know to it, say it in a different and entertaining way, or have it lead to cause and effects.
The first time John’s vanity is indicated, it is when the novel starts and he has to go home to change his coat after he drops mustard on it. We understand that he cares about his appearance. The second time, we see his girlfriend his standing outside the bathroom for two hours, waiting to get in. We learn that not only is John obsessed with looking good, he’s selfish about it too, and we’ve reinforced looks are prioritized over his time. Last we see him swearing as he realizes he’s left his comb behind, then proceeds to be rude to his waiter. This reinforces his vanity, but then also gives motivation for the waiter to keep the wallet he’s left on the table even though he could easily catch him, which allows for him to not be able to take a taxi home, which makes him have to walk and then explains why he gets beaten up and sent to the hospital where a life change event happens.
Reinforcement is better when it’s not just reinforcement.
-Keep to the point—i.e. the themes.
No one does anything without a motive, whether it be deciding to sit down, call a friend, or murder someone, we all have a reason why. That includes why we are telling a story.
Susie tells Mary that she broke up with Danny. Susie wants many things from Mary, mostly just along the lines of reassurance and comfort. That’s a motive. Writing a book is no different, except we have time to think about why we’re saying what we are.
Now people who actually write have lots of reasons to do it. We do it for fun, we do it for respect, we do it as catharsis, as a love of fiction, to make a career, to help people, to get famous, etc. but no matter how altruistic our reasons are, the reasons why we write aren’t the point we want the readers to see.
Every story has a “point,” even if people like to pretend that art doesn’t. This point, or theme, can often be considered the moral of the story, but really it is what we want the audience to understand. It could be anywhere from a simple, “Isn’t James Bond cool?” to “Look how terrible racism is!” Of course, you’d want to word it and take it more seriously than I am, but the intention is the same.
It is helpful to consider the theme to be like a decorating theme, i.e. the color schemes that make the design look deliberate. When you walk into a room that someone clearly got most of their furniture from random, separate places, with a maroon couch, a brown carpet, and white curtains, it could look really nice, but it also reads like what it is: I got what I liked and hoped it matched. Same thing when it comes to a book. If you have a bunch of good ideas together that don’t really seem to correlate, it looks like there’s less thought involved. It may not be a bad thing, it may even make magic, but that will only be in parts, and the general picture will look like you did exactly what you did.
Many authors don’t decide on a theme until after the first draft is complete. A lot of people say that they don’t do thematic writing at all, probably because it sounds pretentious. I personally come up with open-ended and sometimes arbitrary themes like, “fear of the unknown,” to deliberately tie all the events together with one theme and motivation. Doing whatever works for you is important, but even when we choose not to have a “theme” specifically, we still have some sort of point.
Ask yourself why you are telling this story and what you want the audience to understand. Then when the question of “what’s needed” comes up, you’ll better know the answer.
-Is this something I wanted to happen or just felt like should happen?
Despite always having a reason for writing what we do, many times, we’re not aware of the reasons. The conscientious choices we are understand, but the subconscious ones, the more common ones, are often made without any sort of knowledge. Sometimes it has to do with the vision and atmosphere we wanted, sometimes it’s because we’re following a tradition; the subconscious decides things for both great and shallow reasons.
Whether it be insisting on writing a woman as nice, to a traveling group coming to a rickety bridge, to starting the book with the character waking up, there are a lot of choices that we might make because, without thinking, we felt like that’s how it should be.
When criticized, it is common for the speaker to indicate that what the author did was “wrong,” which solicits the understandable response of, “Nu-uh.” In most situations, a choice is not right or wrong, but contextually unsupportive, or simply have a bad execution. And, because of quality being defined by comparison, it may just be there is nothing wrong with the execution save for its commonality demands for higher implementation. Which means that, though a great story could start with someone waking up, it’s much harder than if we were to start it otherwise.
In any case, it becomes hard for the author to decide that he has been influenced by society, and makes him want to say that, yes, deciding to put the family in suburbia was part of his vision, and no, not a subconscious default.
Being honest with yourself and separating what you care about to what you don’t care about helps you determine the best solution to your problem. You might find that, though you weren’t aware of it, you want your character to come from married parents because you don’t want her issues with men to be considered daddy issues. Or, you might decide that, hey, you just did that because that’s how normal family life is supposed to be, but considering that it seems illogical that both parents will accept their daughter choosing to travel to a hell dimension, you might just get rid of one so it seems more convincing.
When looking at a scene that seems to be irrelevant, and you can’t decide if you should get rid of it or fix it, being honest, objective will give you the choice you won’t regret.
-Remember that irrelevant details can be beneficial.
All of that being said, having things happen that aren’t important can be a good thing. First and foremost, only discussing relevant events will announce that all events are relevant, and it will be harder to foreshadow, drop hints, and even legitimize why the character has put two and two together. Little details of actions, features, and even incidents can make life seem more real.
This little contradiction of “have irrelevant details” and “get rid of what isn’t needed,” makes it all the harder to figure out if a scene is important or not. Just because a scene isn’t related to the plot doesn’t necessarily mean it should be taken out; it might behave as the perfect red herring or even contrast, despite it not being its original point.
The question you need to ask is what are the costs and rewards of leaving it in?
Fiction is a luxury that hasn’t been around in the form we know it for long. We use it for entertainment, we use it to learn, we use it to explore the world around us, but when it comes to concrete rules and regulations, there are no natural limits. An author can do whatever he wants when he writes, it just isn’t necessarily going to be successful. The important thing to remember when trying to improve your work is that you know best, and that includes knowing what you think is wrong. When trying to cut down, utilize your real opinions, and then the question of, “is this needed,” can be answered.