This is Part 1 in a 3 part series on purposing your writing, from a large scale to a small scale. See part 2 here: Purposed Characters: How to Win Your Readers’ Hearts and part 3 here: Purposed Words: 3 Ways to Craft Memorable Sentences
In all successful novel scenes, something happens. That seems obvious, but it’s harder to pull off than it sounds. That’s because there are two important aspects to making something happen: character development and new information. It’s so easy to focus on one or the other, but that often makes scenes that readers skim.
Let me explain the most important points and then how to apply it to planning and editing your novel.
1. Character Development
Character development is important because it’s all about what your characters learn. Every character – especially your protagonist – should learn something between the beginning and the end of your novel. The obvious lessons a character might learn are love, courage, family, and other positive qualities. We see those all the time. Some less expected character development might be failure, or learning what doesn’t work. In any case, your character develops as a person somehow through the plot.
If you know what the big thing your character learns is (and you should), every scene that character is in should show some growth in that direction. There should be a setback, an obstacle, or a challenge of the status quo that changes him or her.
For example: The Incredibles movie is about a family of superheros forced into hiding. Mr. Incredible and both kids are sick of trying to act like they’re normal when they’re not, but Mrs. Incredible is still trying to fit in. Every scene has some conflict moving them away from normal life and toward being superheroes as a family. Dash is bored in school, Violet is shy, Mr. Incredible loses his job, and they get wrapped up in a series of dangers that force them to use their superpowers and be a team. There isn’t a single scene that doesn’t have to do with that theme.
2. New Information
There’s bound to be a lot of information that your readers don’t know about your story. If they already knew, there’d be no point in writing a book. Because there’s so much to tell, it’s easy to have a chapter in your book that’s just to tell information. That can get really overwhelming, and usually readers will start skimming to see what information is important. It’s hard to remember everything at once, and easy to lose track of information that’s necessary to understand what happens later.
New information works best when it’s put in context. If the information is important, it’s going to help the characters learn their big lesson. When you list off how many siblings they have, what their family’s like, what their job is, if they like it, etc., that’s all new information. Does it help develop your characters within that chapter? Does it need to be there to make sense? If the answer to either of those questions is no, you’re probably including too much new information.
Most of the time, writers put in too much new information, but sometimes there’s not enough new information. This usually happens when a character is spending a lot of time processing his or her emotions. If your character is doing one thing (cleaning, gardening, looking in a mirror, taking a walk) and thinking about another (the things that have been happening), there’s nothing new there. You probably describe well how how he feels about what happened in the last chapter, but nothing’s happening in this one.
For a good rule of thumb, have 1-4 big new pieces of information in each chapter. By “big new pieces of information,” I mean important things about your characters or your story that your readers didn’t know before. Most chapters will have around 2. Your first chapter will have more than any other chapter, but you still shouldn’t overwhelm your reader. More than four is overwhelming. None at all is déjà vu.
Planning and Editing Scenes
Whether you’re planning or editing, the first step is to write a list of all your scenes. Look at your list and think about each scene. Is it helping teach the characters involved what you want them to learn? What important information is the scene introducing?
If a scene is not developing your characters, you don’t need the scene. You need the information in the scene. Look at your list and find the first place your reader needs to know the information. That’s the chapter where the information should go.
If you have too much new information in the scene, make sure you really need the information right there. Some of the information probably isn’t absolutely necessary until later in the book. If it all seems important for your characters’ growth right at this moment, see if you can break the scene into two separate events.
If you don’t have enough new information, match their reactions with what they’re reacting to. Write down the emotions they’re feeling and the things they’re realizing. If you already have a draft, you could highlight them right in your chapter. Now go back to the last chapter or two and see if you can tell that they’re feeling and learning those things right there. Chances are, you’ve already put it in there, and you’re doubting your ability to make it clear as a writer without talking about it in a separate chapter. If you don’t see those things, think about how each character would mime their reactions to the things that happen. Look for places to include that kind of body language. Also check out my post on movement to help make that stuff happen.
Making all your scenes count is tough; not gonna lie. It hurts to realize that entire beautiful scenes are weighing down your writing, but your novel will be better for it. Ask your beta readers about scenes that you’re not sure about. If you break it down, I know you can do it. Your readers will thank you.
What did I miss? How do you decide whether to keep or toss a chapter from your book?
Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions or suggestions for future posts.