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Is This Scene Worth It?

Don’t let tepid scenes suck the juice from your novel.

One simple step can save you time — and perhaps your novel.

Recognize this situation? You’ve just re-read the last scene written, and now it’s time to write another. You have a sort-of-good idea for it. And maybe when you write it, it will improve “in the telling.”

On the other hand, you’re thinking, you could just explain the action in a narrative bridge. Or perhaps tuck the information bit by bit into several scenes? In other words, you’re not sure the scene is worth it.

So how can we decide whether to bring this nugget of action on stage in a scene?

“Forward the plot” is the usual scene advice. But even following that criteria it’s  easy to write tepid, low-interest scenes.

Let your intuition help.

Here’s a quick way to help you judge if your idea for the scene is good enough: Give it a title. (You won’t use these titles in the manuscript, this is just a quick test for drama.)

The title doesn’t need to be catchy or meaningful to anyone else. But to you, it reflects the dramatic essence of the next story bit. Examples from my planning notebook for a recent novel:

Blood on the silver screen

Breaking into the sanatorium

Having to beg

To take advantage of your intuition, do the naming quickly. Does the title  remind you of the deep currents of your story? If so, maybe that’s the right scene–dramatic if possible, or at least inherently interesting. If you have trouble nailing the title, take it as a diagnostic warning. Ditto if the title doesn’t really sing to you. Like:

Nina takes the coach to town

Drowning his sorrows at Scotty’s bar

Logically, Nina might have to get to town. Or your main character might well go to a bar after just having learned he’s got to save the world. But these titles, if they reflect the heart of the scene, warn you not to bring this material on stage.

The malicious meander.

Will it hurt if you have a scene of the major character considering his predicament with a bottle of his favorite adult beverage? Probably, if nothing else happens. Will it hurt the novel to have a coffee-drinking scene where the kindly supporting character offers support in the face of the major character’s setback? The quick-test title: Coffee and empathy.

Maybe pass on that one.

Many writing decisions lie in wait: the beats of the scene, the escalation, the pay off. But an apt title allows you to make a quick judgment of whether the next few pages will be worth the ink and the sweat. Or whether those pages might induce the reader’s attention to wander.

Therefore: help yourself avoid the malicious meander and the boring plot chunk. The next time you start a scene, try giving the action a title.


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