A famous screenwriting guru once said that every scene had to have
In my discovery drafts, I write anything, but in the rewrites, I look at a scene and ask, “How does this move the plot, develop character, deepen theme, escalate the tension?” Sometimes a scene doesn’t do any of those things but I don’t cut it because it feels like it might become something, because I feel it’s important in a way I just haven’t seen yet. Those often get cut in the end anyway, but sometimes they turn out to be the softball scene in Welcome to Temptation, that started off as snappy patter and turned into Phin making Sophie officially his girlfriend in front of the whole town. It arced the relationships and deepened the hatred that the antagonist had for Sophie, spurring her to up her attacks. It pushed into the open the conflict between Phin and his mother. And it finished the Dillie/Sophie subplot; Dillie chose Sophie as her new mother before Phin did. Oh, and it underscored the mother theme. It didn’t do all of that in the first pass because I was just getting the words on paper, but by the time the rewrite was done, it was pulling its weight and multi-tasking like crazy.
Which brings us to banter, the “funny” justification for a scene. Banter is like sugar, it makes the plot go down easier. But also like sugar, if that’s all there is and there’s too much of it, it can smother the taste of the more important stuff. (A little sugar in a lot of tomato sauce is piquant; a lot of sugar in a little tomato is a mess.) I have a particular problem with this because I love dialogue; if I had my choice I’d write radio plays. So my first drafts are always dialogue heavy, sometimes just dialogue. The problem with dialogue is that it’s often just people chatting. It might be clever dialogue, but unless it’s doing something, it’s just chat. That becomes filler, and if you’ve constructed a good plot and then the reader hits filler, she’s going to skim that looking for plot. It’s similar to the problem with sex scenes; if there’s no plot there, it doesn’t matter how funny/sexy/well-written something is, the reader is trying to put the plot puzzle together, make every piece fit, and this thing doesn’t.
So when I hit a scene like the marriage discussion scene which popped up after another discovery draft scene in which big things did happen, I look to see what’s in there (nothing important) and if any of the chat could mean something I just haven’t seen yet (what’s this whole marriage thing about?). I wrote this scene because the one before had huge implications and then everybody left Nick and Nita alone in the apartment with breakfast and I knew I wanted a breakfast scene.
To decide if I want to keep it, I look at scene basics. It’s Nita vs Nick because it’s in Nita’s PoV and there are only two people. So what’s the conflict? There isn’t
Okay, how do the characters change? They don’t. Nick is changing, but it’s not really demonstrated in this scene. I can up the emotional content, but the scene that really nails Nick’s change comes right after this one, so this isn’t needed. And Nita’s changing, too, but the scene before this shows that because she wakes up after her day of traumatic new knowledge and says, “Okay, this is the new normal.” The previous scene makes that clear. This one just sort of continues it. It’s an empty scene between two strong ones. I don’t need it.
Fine, how does this move plot? Uh, it doesn’t. If they decide to get married, it would do that, but that’s all it would do. I think the problem is that I haven’t set up that Nita has money troubles because she doesn’t; she’s not rich by any means but she has a job and she lives within her salary. The worry is that she’ll lose her job, and that’s foreshadowed by Button’s notebook, but it’s not something she’s truly worried about. Marriage is a solution to a problem she really doesn’t have. And I don’t see how making it a problem adds to the rest of the story. It doesn’t make sense: she’s a good cop, people on the island like her, her dad’s the mayor, there’s no reason to fire her. She’s going to give the department a reason to fire her shortly, but at the time of this scene, it’s just not a problem. So the whole marriage conversation is a solution in search of a problem. Meanwhile, there’s actual plot going on around it that needs the story real estate this is taking up. A scene has to earn its place in a story. This scene is freeloading.
Snappy patter is not