How to know what's relevant

Dragonlady

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As I attempt draft 2 of my WIP I've been pondering how to work out which scenes are relevant to the story. I have been surprised when someone has commented that a particular scene might not be relevant (my wip hasn't been read by others yet, but discussed, and my previous WIP was read aloud to various groups). I think it's likely partly working out what story I'm telling and what I consider relevant, which might be genuinely different from a reader, and partly learning to tell the chaff from the grain. Any thoughts or wisdom appreciated.
 

ckatt

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I think a simple question you can use is asking how the result of the scene moves the characters closer or further from their goal. If the answer is that it doesn't do either, then it may not be relevant.
I think this gets harder when one considers indirect progress or some kind of emotional development. But I think it's still applicable. Has the character become more is less emotionally ready to handle what comes next? If so, then it's relevant.
Some times it's hard for readers to know, since they don't know where the story is going. So also, the narrative must be engaging enough to keep readers reading.
There's probably other ways to tell as well, but I find this simple enough to be widely applicable.
 

MemoryTale

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As I attempt draft 2 of my WIP I've been pondering how to work out which scenes are relevant to the story. I have been surprised when someone has commented that a particular scene might not be relevant (my wip hasn't been read by others yet, but discussed, and my previous WIP was read aloud to various groups). I think it's likely partly working out what story I'm telling and what I consider relevant, which might be genuinely different from a reader, and partly learning to tell the chaff from the grain. Any thoughts or wisdom appreciated.

I think the main things you're looking for is if the scene reveals anything that can't be found elsewhere in your story, and if it fits in the flow of your narrative.

I remember beta reading a novel a while back for a fellow Chronner, and came across a chapter I felt might be superfluous. I noted down the main pieces of information that chapter contained that the reader previously did not know, and looked to see if this information was revealed elsewhere in the novel. As it all was revealed elsewhere, and the chapter broke up the pace of what was going on, I felt the chapter can go.

In another example, let's say your main is being menaced by the Masked Killer. Masked Killer has him cornered, and is bearing down on him with the Chainsaw Of Unmitigated Pain. Then the action cuts to your main's sidekicks, Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob are exploring a temple. What they're about to discover has nothing to do with uncovering the secret weakness of the Chainsaw of Unmitigated Pain. They're not going to stumble across the main and Masked Killer and save the day. In fact all that's going to happen is that Alice discovers she really quite fancies Bob. Good for their character development, but this scene has no business being where it is. If you can't find a more logical place for it, then the scene can go bye-byes, and Alice will have to have her revelation some other way.
 

The Judge

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To echo ckatt, does the scene progress the story and move it on in any way? If you removed the scene would it in fact affect the story? If not -- if plot, characterisation, atmosphere or world-building would be unaffected -- then it's definitely a candidate for being binned.

If the removal of the scene affects the plot, then it needs to be kept, but consider whether it can be pruned so that irrelevancies are removed.

If the removal of the scene affects characterisation, then consider exactly how it's affected and whether it's important, and whether you could instead add the necessary paragraphs to another scene to have the same effect.

If the removal of the scene affects atmosphere and/or world-building, think long and hard how important it is for the novel that the reader knows this (particularly the case with world-building as we can be over-protective of our good ideas which readers just don't need) and again whether the same effect can be engineered by adding something to another scene which is necessary.
 

sknox

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Dragonlady, do you have passages you're worried about? Other passages you're quite sure are necessary? All the above advice is quite correct, but especially for a new author it can be all but impossible to tell what moves a story forward or what is essential to the scene and so on. As this is an art, the only real way to develop the sense is for the author themselves to keep exercising judgment.

I would first forget about the reader. At this point, it's you and the story, which means just you. Do *you* find scenes to be less good than others? If so, can you hone in on specifics? The advice given above on this thread will give you parameters and measures, things to look for. Once you've got the thing where it passes muster for you, then you can start asking for feedback from others.

This isn't easy (though it's easy to ignore). Keep at it. Stay focused on specific examples, specific scenes.
 

Biskit

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All of the above but tempered with a bit of caution.

How many people have read it? It they all say the scene is superfluous, then I would consider it something that needs serious attention. If it's only one out of many, then maybe it's a scene that doesn't work well for a particular reader. I think you still need to do the sort of analysis mentioned above, but also weight that with how many readers have echoed the comment.
Of course if it's one out of one, who happens to be utterly brilliant at picking out weaknesses in a story then get the toolkit out, take it apart and work out what's wrong. (If the Biskitetta flags a scene as not working, that it's almost certainly not working and I need to rewrite or remove.)

The other thing I would consider in addressing a scene that doesn't seem to be achieving anything is to look at what comes before, and maybe after. Have you overloaded an earlier scene with things that ought to be happening later? I come from a science and IT background where fault-tracing in one form or another is a fundamental skill, and one of the things I have learned over the years is that just because you have found the point where it goes pop or starts to smoke, that is not necessarily where the actual fault lies.
 

Toby Frost

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My rule of thumb would be that a scene should move the plot forward or deepen the setting (usually through characterisation) - preferably both. So an ideal scene would involve one or more characters doing something plot-related in a way that shows what they're like. An example might be two people planning to steal an object, one of whom is more cautious than the other.

I don't know if this applies to the OP, but I get the feeling that some writers really like writing about their characters just doing stuff - chatting, going to school or work, and doing mundane things in character that don't move the plot forward. In a published novel, I don't think you can have much of this kind of thing before the reader wants to know what's actually happening.
 

Wayne Mack

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For me, I find it helpful to create a brief outline after the fact. For each chapter, provide a 1-4 sentence description of what happens. I find this makes it easier to scan through the story and identify how it is flowing and whether things are in the right order. When creating the chapter summaries, it will often suddenly feel obvious if the section does not fit.
 

msstice

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A skill I would like to improve is creating anticipation. In my book great writers are those who can take any passage and put in little clues that make you second guess what's going to happen. Turn a mundane episode into a gripping tale by injecting doubt, conflict and surprise.
I have a note that I refer to often:

Advance plot, character and world-building with every scene.

(Here world building includes atmosphere) Ideally each bit does all three, but each bit must do at least one.
 

Wayne Mack

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Advance plot, character and world-building with every scene.
I find doing two out of three to be most reasonable. To me, doing all three is extremely challenging even once in a story, much less in every scene. Doing only one tends to be less interesting. It is rare that the plot, a character, or a world is so inherently interesting that it can stand by itself.
 

Dragonlady

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@sknox you are probably right, I probably just need to be a bit brutal and play around and see what happens.

@Toby Frost There are probably some scenes of the sort that you describe that I have put in to show character or some such - I have tried rewriting my original first chapter , which was the character getting up and preparing for the journey , with one where they are doing their job and giving us a chance to see what that involves and how they feel about it, some of the character dynamics. This story has character/romance threads and a murder mystery plot which means there are a lot of scenes that do move things forward, but might be considered weak, as I have a habit of thinking too chronologically- like a video diary rather than a film director.
 

Cthulhu.Science

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For me, I find it helpful to create a brief outline after the fact. For each chapter, provide a 1-4 sentence description of what happens. I find this makes it easier to scan through the story and identify how it is flowing and whether things are in the right order. When creating the chapter summaries, it will often suddenly feel obvious if the section does not fit.
This reminded me of the 19th century tradition of putting a chapter outline at the beginning of each chapter.
Chapter 3 "In which our hero..."
 

msstice

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This reminded me of the 19th century tradition of putting a chapter outline at the beginning of each chapter.
Chapter 3 "In which our hero..."
I'm rereading "To say nothing of the dog" which pays homage to JKJ's book and so has these summaries. I do skip them, because they are bit long in her book. I think the were shorter in Three Men, but I haven't read that one is several decades, so I may have forgotten.
 

Steve Harrison

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I'm reading a historical crime thriller by a well known author at the moment and parts of it are terribly slow because they are filled with, in my opinion, irrelevant and unnecessary detail or the rambling/repetitive thoughts (sometimes both) of the main character. I try to leave my writing hat off when I read, but I'm finding it very difficult to do with this novel, as I have the urge to strike out the long, offending sections with a red pencil. Alas, I have an ereader so this is not possible.

However, the book is so good overall, I will keep going. But obviously the highly experienced author, the editor and (major) publisher were happy to leave those sections in. I can kind of see why, in that there might be some atmospheric and character reasons, but I find it drags and does not provide anything not conveyed better elsewhere.

This first book in a long series obviously didn't put off readers, so perhaps I'm out of kilter with the style, but it's been a very interesting experience comparing it to how I would write a similar book.

However, I can't argue with a bestseller!
 

Wayne Mack

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It is often difficult to translate the 'wow' factor for the writer to the 'wow' factor for the reader. I always find it difficult to not dump all background researh that I may have done to the reader. I may have felt excited when I discovered these tidbits, but when they show up on the written page, they come across as dry and boring and unimportant to know.
 

msstice

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It is often difficult to translate the 'wow' factor for the writer to the 'wow' factor for the reader. I always find it difficult to not dump all background researh that I may have done to the reader. I may have felt excited when I discovered these tidbits, but when they show up on the written page, they come across as dry and boring and unimportant to know.
That's what they're all thinking when the going is smooth, but I bet when the chips are down, and the nuclear reactor is about to blow, I bet they wish they read all the parts that explained which valve to open to let the liquid sodium coolant flow again.
 

The Big Peat

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In the generality, I can't add much that hasn't been said. I in particular like Wayne's thing about the summaries. I do that too. It a) makes editing a lot easier, as you've got a more specific idea of what it should look like b) starts telling you a scene isn't relevant if the summary feels stupid c) if you notice you're writing the same summary a lot, you have scenes to cut or an interesting them (or both)

The only thing I'd add is ask "Why"?

Why is that scene there?

Okay, but why does that answer matter to the plot?

Okay, but why is that aspect of the plot important?

Ask it enough times and you either get a very specific idea of why you're doing something, or are aware that what you're doing maybe doesn't matter.
 

tinkerdan

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If you are looking at the whole piece, then I think any input on relevance makes sense and should be considered.
If it's only part of the story then the only sense it should make is relevance to that part-scene-and that should be considered, but relevance to the whole story is another thing entirely. You may--as has been mentioned--have to move the piece to a more relevant spot.
 

Swank

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Assuming that the scene was written because something interesting happens in it, you could always do something to make it relevant.
 

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