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How To Decide To Cut A Scene: A Heuristic for Writers

Almost every fiction writer has heard “kill your darlings” and “show don’t tell.” These pithy sayings get repeated so much that they lose a lot of meaning and they’re frankly a little annoying, because they don’t really help writers know when to kill darlings, or which darlings to kill, or what to show and not tell, or what makes showing or telling. They’re frustrating, right?

Let’s craft your book!
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood ❤ (via Stocksnap)

So let’s work on a heuristic to help you know when to cut a scene—that is, when to “kill your darling”—and in some degree to know what to show your readers in your novel. This heuristic can be used for whole chapters, whole scenes, even whole story arcs or characters, but also for smaller pieces, such as paragraphs or dialogue. Any unit you’re looking at and considering if you should keep it while revising, this heuristic will work for.

But before I get started, I want to put a disclaimer on this, which really is a pretty standard disclaimer for my writing advice most of the time. All this should be applied primarily in revision, not when hammering out a first draft. Do not let ruminating about if a scene meets these criteria stop you from writing the scene! This is just a way to make your writing tighter, which happens later. If you’re NaNoWriMo-style drafting, tuck this away in your pocket with your inner editor for later.

So here’s the heuristic: Cut anything that doesn’t achieve at least one of these three purposes:

  1. Advance plot
  2. Develop character
  3. Develop themes

Ideally, every element you are examining should achieve at least two of these criteria. Anything meeting all three definitely needs to stay!

Here lies your darlings?
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood, because ok I like her photos (via StockSnap)

There is one other caveat, which is to cut anything that does one of these things that is also being done more effectively by another section. For instance, if you have a scene that advances the plot by revealing the villain’s big overarching plan, but you also have another scene that does the same thing and at the same time exposes the villain’s ultimate betrayer’s motivations, then keep the second scene, not the first one.

And there is another note about this tool you should be aware of: this is in order of importance. If the material only develops theme, you might think very seriously about cutting it; if it only develops plot, it’s still a bit weaker than if it does two things, but that’s a stronger argument to keep it. In fact, if you have something that only does one thing, I recommend that you consider combining it with something else, so that it will do two things. Then you know you should keep it.

So what does get cut here? Those beautiful descriptions of the weather. That deep world building where you explore all the grammatical and etymological intricacies of your conlang (constructed language). That backstory where your main character discusses their family, but that has little to do with why your main character is here now.

As I often say to my students: Happy revising!

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