Cutting a Scene

Minor cuts in a scene–taking out adjectives and adverbs, getting rid of unnecessary clauses, lopping off some “said”s–can just be done on a read through. But if I need to really hack a scene down, I have to do the scene level process of scene sequences: I have to break the scene down into beats.

So here are the beats of the first scene of Nita before the newest cuts (Nita vs. Button, 2649 words).

Beat One: Nita tries to sober up, Button asks her why they’re there. Establishes that they don’t know each other, where they are, and that Button is antagonistic. Nita tries to get out of the car and Button says, “Wait” and Nita waits. (492 words)

Beat Two: Button explains her concerns to Nita who tries to get out of the car. Button says, “Wait” and Nita says “No.” Nita takes back the power in the conversation. (421)

Beat Three: Frank shows up because Nita opened the door, and Button asks Frank to go get Mort. Mort explains the problem. Infodump, bleah. (488)

Beat Four: Franks rats them out and Jason gets in the car. Conflict between Nita and Jason, not Nita and Button, more info dump, bleah. (855)

Beat Five: Nita turfs out Jason, opens door to go to bar, Button says “Wait, I’ll go with you.” (390)

Since this scene is Nita vs. Button, obviously the problems are in the third and fourth beats. I’m okay with the wait/wait/disruption/disruption/wait progression as long as it’s clear that the point of the disruptions is that they’re creating more problems in the Nita vs Button conflict, but not that damn long. (Yes, I know many of you told me to cut the Jason section. You. were right. Happy now? ARGH.)

I can scale the Mort beat back to around 400 probably, but then the Jason beat is going to need a real hacking since it should be less than 400 (based on the idea that narrative units get shorter as you go toward the climax, which in this scene is. Button saying, “Wait, I’ll go with you.” Yes, there’s that “go to hell, Nita Dodd” bit at the end, but that bookends the climax of the whole story when Nita goes to Hell, so it stays.)

See? Easy. (Clunks head on desk.)

Update: Beats One, Two, Three, and Five are pretty lean already. I cut some words, but obviously the place to slash is Beat Four. I got Beat Four to 462, down from 855 words, which isn’t bad, although another 62 words down would be good. And the scene is 2225 overall down from 2646, so that’s something. I think 2000 word scenes from Nita and then Nick is a good place to start before they meet, just enough. to set up anticipation without slowing things down. And Nick’s scene is already 2064, so that’s good. I think. Argh.

29 thoughts on “Cutting a Scene

  1. If you’re looking to cut things, would you need to introduce Frank at this point?
    I think you could probably get Mort/Jason over to the car without dragging Frank into it.

    1. Frank is crucial and threaded throughout the story. Yep, I need him in there.
      That’s the problem with Act One. It has to hit the ground running, but it has to establish everything, too, so that when the story kicks up at the first turning point (when Nick smites Rich), everything after that is just story because Act One established the cast, the setting, the theme, the goal, the conflict, the mood . . . Act One does all the heavy lifting. And Frank is a crucial member of the cast. Argh.

      1. First acts are tough. I like writing the first scene — ooh, shiny new story — but the rest of the act can be challenging for me. I struggle with making sure I introduce people who will be needed later as suspects and red herrings, without weighing down the scenes that have other purposes than introducing the character. Since I write mysteries, I need to get all my suspects into the story no later than the halfway mark, and I try to get them in, either directly or by proxy/reference, even sooner than that if at all possible. But I also have to be careful not to make too big a deal out of characters’ introduction, so I’m not shining a light on them saying “this is the killer, which is why I’m spending so much time on him in this scene!” and they need to have another reason to be in the scenes. It’s part of why I need to outline before writing (my road to Oz, not necessarily anyone else’s), or I wouldn’t get everyone in place in time!

  2. And here I am trying to add things to my scenes. This is the problem with trying to write to someone else’s arbitrary word counts. Each scene should be 1300 words and then when I get to the end I’ll have the correct number of words.

    I’m becoming more and more minimalist in my writing, it grates on me to fill stuff to reach a word count.

    It’s possible I should get another vocation. Blurgh.

    1. All the scenes are the same length? Who are these people and where did they learn fiction? (Not actually asking that, just amazed.)

  3. I think we should change Faulkner’s “kill your darlings” to “kill your darlings but let me read them first”. I know it’s always better after you pare them down, but………….

  4. I agree with Sure Thing- I love watching your process. 🙂

    It’s like watching Michelangelo sculpt. (And being privy to him kicking aside the marble on the ground that he didn’t like, and getting to learn why he did chipped that piece off in the first place.)

  5. I’m in first draft mode at this point – and I can do copy editing and slashing excess verbiage, but I find looking at the structure of scenes and arcs of development really hard to get my head round.

    Using Scrivener at the moment, I get glimpses of things I’ve already written and I’m feeling slightly Dory like, because I can’t remember huge chunks in the middle. I’m 36,000 words in, and there are whole sections where I have no idea what is going on. And in my notes and in an early chapter, I gave my heroine’s mother a cat which I had totally forgotten about when I came to write chapters with mother and stepfather. And in my synopsis, I have my heroine keeping a diary and there has not been one entry yet….arrrghghghgh. Continuity.

  6. I’m reading Nita at the moment (playing catch up) and to be honest, I thought the first chapter was confusing. SO MANY characters. (Mind you, I have fibro brain complicated by menopause brain, so you could probably give me Bill and Ted and I’d still be confused. It may not be you.) On the other hand, after chapter one I got sucked right in, so there’s that.

      1. Right. Just figured it out, came back to say, and you were here before me. Goodonya. I adore Mort. Frank, he can go.

        1. Frank stays. He wanders through the story as a minor character and then becomes key at the end.
          Mort, however, is probably not essential. I just love him. Sigh.

          1. I know, I just have to figure out how to keep him in the game while I’m cutting like crazy. I love Mort.

          2. Because they said “Happy Birthday” to each other. And she didn’t assume they were twins, she asked why they were both saying “Happy Birthday.”

            Button pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and shook his hand awkwardly. “Uh, happy birthday? To both of you?”
            “Twins.” Mort transferred his attention back to his sister.

          3. If I cut him down any more, he’ll disappear. I need to drop him in somewhere in Act Three because he sort of vanishes for most of Two, Three, and Four, but I don’t want to cut him.

  7. I’ll have to reread the Nita drafts, but (in fiction, generally) don’t some supporting characters get a pass, i.e. can’t the friendship be their role, maybe their only role? Not everyone has to do x or y boldly, but doesn’t simple friendship sometimes count in a book?

    Jayne Ann Krentz did a wonderful job (and maybe still does) with her heroine’s women friends, at least when I look back at my favorite JAK and her Amanda Quick books. Katie Fforde does, too. There are many other writers whose heroines have friends, but those two authors come to mind, in addition to, of course …

    Your (Jenny’s) stories’ heroines’ friends are wonderful and have important roles, too, but the friendships in and of themselves are important, aren’t they, even if the friends’ roles in moving action is minor or brief (e.g. Jessie’s minor but important role vs Penny’s in “Manhunting,” both friendships delightful)?

    I’m reading (rather listening to) Loretta Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels,” which is pretty good on many levels, but I keep wondering, why doesn’t our heroine have any friends? Everything is going on in her head. Doesn’t she talk to anyone? She used to, I think (her grandmother?), but I keep snapping at her (well, at the audio book /g), get out of your head you idiot. Go home and talk to your friends, laugh, walk, play, have some fun!

    Even her hero has friends and friendships, however dysfunctional. I’m guessing that her heroine’s friendships weren’t Chase’s story, but it sure brings to the fore my awareness of whether or not a heroine has any and I’m left feeling as if there is a something missing in the story. I’m just realizing that those “missing” stories are the ones I seldom if ever re-read.

    After all, why should I like this person if no one else does? Is there a reason she has no friends (unless that is what the story is about – friendlessness and finally, friendfulness)?

    Sorry about the length of this! The perils of thinking out loud, so to speak. It wasn’t supposed to turn into a book review of Lord of Scoundrels, yikes.

    1. The problem is that he disappears after the beginning of the second act and doesn’t come back until the third.
      But I’m doing a massive rewrite on the second and third acts, so that may change.

    2. As I remember, the heroine of ‘Lord of Scoundrels’ had been a quasi mother to her younger brother plus other siblings/cousins. So I think she’d been very involved with family, as well as with developing the expertise needed to start her own business. Then she ends up being swept off to Devon by her new husband, where she knows nobody. I do realize the story could have been written differently, and the structure is a bit odd, but the story does work for me, and I think a best friend would dilute the intensity of the hero and heroine marooned in his childhood home, working out a future for themselves.

  8. I vote keep Mort too. I love seeing how the Act has changed from your first draft. One of the things I wondered was whether some of the careful crafting made it difficult to keep the warmth and natural-ness and skippy lightness of the original scene. Mort helps a lot with that, I think, especially Nita’s likeability.

    1. I agree with Allanah. Also, isn’t Mort’s open viewpoint on demons a counter to Nita’s certainty that demons don’t exist? I have the impression that a lot of people on Demon Island would have noticed the greens among them if they hadn’t been so acculterated to see only what they have been taught exists.


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