Scenes: To Kill or Not to Kill…That is The Question

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Working through critique notes can be tough. Not only do we have to read through them with an open, objective mind, we also have to absorb them. Swallow them whole bit by bit then regurgitate by making the necessary changes based on both the feedback, and what our gut tells us. Describing it that way isn’t pretty, is it? Nope. And neither is realizing you might need to cut an entire scene.

Why Kill a Scene

Making the decision to kill words is never easy. Why? Because you’re engaged to those words. Making the decision to kill a scene? Now that’s even more difficult because instead of being engaged, you’re married to those words.

You’ve written the scene (taken it out for a date), revised/rewritten it countless times (gone steady with it), then you’ve made the final decision. The decision being that you’ve made it the best it can possibly be (married it).
But now you’ve got to face divorcing the scene from your WIP. You gotta kill it.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Game. Over.
What is it about this scene that has your Beta Readers not falling over themselves for it like you were? Why aren’t they congratulating your wedded bliss?
Here’s why:

  • Missing tension and conflict
    • Tension/Conflict keeps readers turning pages
  • No new information is being revealed
    • Readers want to learn more about these characters and/or their conflicts on almost every page
  • The scene does not move the plot along
    • This is right along the same lines as no new information is being revealed. If you’re not giving the reader new information about the plot, then you should be revealing new information on how the characters are going to proceed in surviving the major and/or subplot
  • It’s a filler scene
    • You gave your characters a bit of break. Whether consciously or unconsciously, your characters are sitting back and enjoying life for a few pages. Depending on where you in your plot, giving the characters a break may not be for the best of your story at that moment in time.
  • The scene is flat out missing a goal, and unfortunately, there is no way to turn it around into having said goal
    • This sorta goes hand in hand with ‘No new information is being revealed.’ However, even if you are revealing new information, if the character(s) in that scene don’t have a particular goal, then there’s a good chance that’s why it’s falling flat.  


How to Save a Scene

Now that we’ve addressed some of the reasons for killing a scene, let’s address the reasons why a scene shouldn’t be killed. Or better yet, let’s address how to save a scene that may be suffering from some of those problems above.

  • Tension/Conflict
    • Break down the scene and rewrite passages/sentences throughout the entire scene to add or increase tension/conflict. Build up the urgency in that scene. Do this and you might be able to save the scene.
  • Information Sharing
    • Readjust the bones of a scene to insert new information for the reader, through either internalizations or dialogue. Or move the scene to another place in your WIP, somewhere there is new information that needs to be shared then use that scene to do so. You may have to change the setting, but the conversation and actions will essentially be the same. Do this and you might be able to save the scene.
  • Moving the Plot Along
    • Revamp the scene with a plot point. Whether you extend a plot point from a previous scene, or you begin the next plot point in this scene, season the plot throughout the scene. Do this and you might be able to save the scene.
  • Filler scenes
    • The only way to save a filler scene is to sprinkle any of the above throughout the scene. Spice it up somehow. Increase the tension/conflict, reveal something new about either the plot or a character or weave in a plot point. The characters may be getting a break in this scene, but who’s to say that even during a break they’re not thinking about the conflict they just survived, or will need to survive.
  • Missing Goal
    • Break down the character(s)’s goal in that scene. Is it to make a decision? Is it embarrass a cheating spouse at his place of work? Is it to discover the truth? Whatever their goal is, it has to be there. It has to be on the pages and obvious to the reader. 


When There’s No Such Thing as Resuscitation

Sometimes, even with revamping and rewriting a scene, saving it was just never in the cards. It’s the same concept as never being able to make a past relationship last – you weren’t meant to be. A lasting relationship was never in the cards for you and that person.
And there’s nothing you can do about that. What will be will be.
But don’t toss the scene out onto the street to fend for itself. Instead, you can do the following:

  • Cut the scene from your WIP and save it in a separate file
  • Revert back to the scene if needed in the future. Just because you can’t see how to fix it now doesn’t mean you won’t later. If possible, you might be able to break the scene apart and sprinkle some of it throughout the story. 
  • Change its title from being a ‘murdered scene’ to a ‘deleted scene,’ or an outtake
    • God willing this story is going to be published sometime in the future. And when that happens your readers are going to visit your website looking for any extras it may offer. This scene can be an added bonus for your readers. There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing deleted scenes and outtakes on authors’ websites. It connects me to their story even more than I was before clicking the mouse.
Other resources about scene/word divorces deletions/resuscitation: 
Taking the Scenic Route: Scenes and Sequels by Janice Hardy
Hey, Still With Me? Poking Dead Scenes With A Stick, Part One by Janice Hardy


How do you determine the death of a scene? What are some other warning signs that a scene just isn’t going to work? What other ways can a scene be saved? When you do have to cut a scene, how do you cope with the loss and what do you do with ‘the body?’

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Copyright 2018 by Melinda S. Collins