Knowing when to cut or fix a crap scene, and how to do it
Do you have scenes that aren't working? Where the dialogue is flat and unconvincing and there's no compulsive quality? Where you know it deserves to be cut from the story but you need that character to meet that other character at that particular point and it would be great if you could only just make it work?
We all have them – seemingly essential scenes that read like dogs' dinners. So what the hell can we do about it?
The first thing we have to understand is what the dramatic purpose of the scene is, what's the reason we made that scene selection – if it's anything other than to reveal character or progress the story then the scene is a genuine candidate for cutting. Here are a few likely reasons a scene choice was made:
1. to progress the story
2. to reveal some aspect of character
3. to introduce a character
4. for expositional purposes
If your scene makes any of the top three of these then it's worth considering keeping. If the scene is only expositional (or god forbid, you've no idea why you wrote it), then it's likely that's the reason it's failing – exposition needs to be combined with story progression or character exposure to be interesting.
So our scene has one of the top three elements, or even better, more than one, but still, is it necessary? Is the story compromised without that scene; is that character not fully understood if it goes – in other words, is this scene essential?
It is? Well then, we have to fix it. And having worked out what the dramatic purpose of the scene really is, there's no reason why we can't. The next question we need to ask is this – is the scene achieving its dramatic purpose?
A scene will fail either because it's not portraying the characters or story clearly enough OR because those characters or story aren't up to much in the first place. Knowing why the scene is failing is the first step to fixing it. In essence - get your story straight, and tell it well; fully develop your characters and reveal them. Good story-telling principles apply as much to scenes as they do anywhere else.
Scenes are not about what characters are saying, but what's going on while they're saying it – either subtextually or through action. It's easy to forget this. Therefore it's easy to find yourself telling through what the characters say, rather than showing through action or subtext. If you know what the dramatic purpose of the scene is, then consider what the best way to show this is.
For example – you want to demonstrate that character B has violent tendencies, you could do tell it this way:
Character A – You remember the time you kicked the shit out of that guy for borrowing your pencil without asking?
Character B – Yeah, I do. Can you pass the salt?
Or show it this way:
Stranger C – Hey mister, I think you took my chair.
Character B – Really? So why don't you try come get it, buddy?
Character A – Hey, B – take it easy - the guy only wants his chair back.
Character B – In fact, he can have it, wrapped round his head.
A lot's being said in scene 1, but nothing is actually happening, while it's the opposite in scene 2.
So, in summary – to figure out if your crappy scene makes the cut:
1. Understand its dramatic purpose and if that purpose justifies its inclusion.
2. Understand if the scene is essential.
3. Understand if the failing is due to weak story, undeveloped or uninteresting character, or technique.
4. If the scene is still here, you know it's worth fixing, and you should know what needs fixing.
And if you remember that scenes are about what's happening, not what's being said, you can't go far wrong.