A Scene with Purpose
Why did you just write that scene? You know the one I mean, the one where nothing really happens, but it was nice, or it connected two other scenes where stuff does happen? Or maybe you don’t know why you wrote the scene, it was just what happened next in the story.
Sometimes when I’m planning out my writing, I just make a note to myself: Louisa and Anthony go to a garden party; or Louisa and Anthony play chess, witty banter.
Witty banter? Really??? What am I supposed to write? And why? Why are they playing chess? What’s the point of that witty banty that’s just supposed to fly from my fingertips? That’s great that they go to a garden party—is there a point to this? Are they supposed to meet someone there? Not meet someone? Does someone accidentally get shot during that archery competition they’re going to engage in?
Why am I writing this scene??
Sometimes I just need to stop and ask. Sometimes it’s not always obvious why I thought a scene should happen. I might even write the scene with no goal in mind and then stop and wonder what the point was. Yes, it was a lovely scene. Yes, Louisa won twenty-five pounds for Anthony by hitting a bullseye only the second time she’s ever held a bow in her hands. But what’s the point? What do they learn? What does the reader learn other than that Louisa’s a damn fine shot?
For every scene in your book, there need to be two goals: one is your goal as the author of the book; the other is the goal of the point-of-view character.
Your goal could be something as simple as getting to know the characters better. Character development is a perfectly fine goal. Or it could be something much more exciting like moving the protagonist toward, or even better, away from the ultimate goal. A very fine goal for a romance (and the reason why I needed both of the scenes I mentioned above) is for the hero to woo the heroine. That witty banter was necessary because it made the hero realize that the heroine was actually someone he wanted to get to know better, hence the garden party scene where he actively woos her. These are scenes that I needed to be there to move the romance forward.
The second goal needed in every scene is the goal of the pov character. They need to need or want something. Whether it is merely to relax and take a break from everything else they’re doing (the chess scene), or to try to make the heroine fall in love with him (the garden party scene), the pov character needs a goal. They don’t need to know what that goal is, only you, the author does. You are the puppet master, you make sure your pov character gets what they need or if they don’t… well, all the better, that adds conflict.
If you’re a plotter and make a detailed outline, W-graph, or index cards for each scene, do yourself a favor and write down the two goals for every scene: yours and the pov character’s. That way, when you go to actually write the scene you know why you’re doing so and what needs to happen (if I hadn’t known why my characters needed to engage in witty banter, it could have been about anything from the weather to what someone was wearing that day instead of something that would touch the hero more closely and make him think more highly of her).
If you’re a pantser, go ahead and write those scenes as they come to you. Follow your muse and see where she leads you, but then when you go back and edit your work, make sure you know the purpose and goals for every scene. If there isn’t one, you either need to rewrite the scene or get rid of it all together (painful, I know, I’m sorry).
The important thing is to know why every scene in your book is there and not have any that are just deadweight stopping the forward momentum of your story. And as always, to every writing rule, there are exceptions.
If you’ve ever read Suzanne Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you’ll be screaming at how wrong I am. There are long chapters in that book (and some footnotes too) that are fantastic self-contained short stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book and I would get to the end of one of them and wonder why it was there. I enjoyed reading it, I was just a little confused why it was included. On the other hand, the book is 780 pages long and weighs nearly three pounds. If you’d like your book to rival that, go right ahead, include those asides, those scenes that don’t move your story forward. Just have fun!