How to Write a Tight Novel & Make Every Scene Count

Writing a Tight Novel: How to Make every scene count

Writing a Tight Novel: How to Make every scene countIf you want to write a page-turning novel, then you want to make sure your book is as tight as it can possibly be. The tighter a book is written, the more engaging it is, and the more of a page-turner it becomes. If you want to write a tight novel, one key is to make every scene count.

This doesn’t mean you should spend your first draft agonizing over every scene. When you’re writing your first draft, you’re just getting to know your story and sometimes you need to write extra unnecessary scenes to get more familiar with your characters and world. But when it comes time to revise, you may have to make some tough calls. Because when you write a tight novel, every scene needs to earn its place.

To help you write a tight novel, here are four questions to ask when you evaluate each scene and some tips for fixing a scene that isn’t serving your story.

Does the scene advance the plot?

The plot is what keeps your readers engaged in your story. It’s what keeps your readers guessing and desperate to know what happens next. This is a key element to consider if you want to write a tight novel. If you want each of your scenes to really count, they all have to serve your plot.

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be big and flashy and advance your story by leaps and bounds. Sure, sometimes your character may have some kind of showdown with their enemy. But other times, they can simply learn something they’ll need to act on later. This lesson can be a big revelation or a small breadcrumb that leads us to the next scene. As long as it leads us somewhere, it will have earned its place.

Also, it’s okay if some scenes don’t advance your plot–as long as they serve another purpose that we’ll talk more about in a moment!

How to fix a scene that doesn’t advance the plot

If you have a scene that doesn’t advance the plot, here are three possible fixes to consider:

1) Is there something your character could be doing or learning? If they’re killing time waiting for something to happen, could they be reading a book or doing some kind of research? Could another character briefly appear to give them something to work with? Again, it can be small, but there has to be something that pushes your story forward.

2) Look at what you already have in the scene. Can anything connect to your larger plot? This turned out to be a lifesaver for me when I was working on my first book. It’s a spy novel and in it, I send my characters on a series of missions. For whatever reasons, I’d decided that the missions didn’t need to be connected. One of the first notes my editor gave me (before she even bought the book) was that all of the missions should be related. Instead of rewriting each of the missions, I looked at what I had. The first mission had my characters retrieving a flash drive. At the time, the flash drive didn’t mean anything–it was just something for my character to retrieve. Once I got that note, I decided that flash drive would have encoded files that ended up dictating their future missions as each file was cracked.

In my experience, your subconscious has a better understanding of your story than you often realize. Take inventory of the tools didn’t even realize you gave yourself and use them to your advantage.

3) Cut the scene. If it’s not serving your story, it hasn’t earned its place and it needs to go. (With one exception we’re about to get to.) Also, don’t be afraid to trim any excess material in a scene you’re keeping. If you find that your ten-page scene advances the plot in the first five pages, consider wrapping things up early.

Does the scene advance character development?

Character development is important even in a more commercial, plot-driven novel. It’s your characters that are going to connect with your reader and keep them invested. Because of that, you may sometimes have scenes that don’t do much to advance the plot but are pivotal in developing your character.

Ultimately you need your characters to grow so they can handle the twists and turns of the plot, and so your readers have something to relate to and root for. So if you have some scenes that are strictly for character development, you should be okay to keep them in. Just like with plot, the character development counts whether it’s a pivotal moment or a small step forward. (Or even a step backward, if you do it right, because they can lead to growth too).

How to fix a scene that doesn’t advance your character development

1) Make sure you’re clear on how your character is growing. To make it easy, I suggest focusing on one major developmental goal for your character to achieve in your novel. I also suggest mapping their development out so you’re clear on the progression. (This post explains a little bit about this concept.) Then make sure your scene somehow contributes to this progression, even if its just a small step forward.

2) Check in with how your character thinks or feels about a situation. This will give you an opportunity to add to their growth. You don’t have to get carried away or distract from your plot. A sentence or two will often get the job done.

3) Don’t fix it. Sure, an ideal scene will advance both the plot and the character in some way, but that isn’t always practical. Just like in the point above, some scenes just won’t lend themselves to character development. And ultimately, an engaging plot will control the pace of your novel over your character development, so if you have to let a few extra scenes slide on the character front for the sake of the plot, I say do it. Use your best judgment, and move on if it feels right. However, if the scene doesn’t advance either character or plot, it’s likely that you’ve found a scene to cut or significantly revise.

Does the scene repeat a function another scene serves?

Is your scene serving an original purpose? Or does the scene repeat the purpose of another scene? Now we’re getting a little more complex. This problem can be tricky to find sometimes. A scene can have a “good character moment” or a “good plot moment” and make you think it’s earned its place, but if it doesn’t actually advance the character or plot, it’s a scene that deserves a second look.

A personal example I have comes from an early draft of Crossing the Line. I had two characters that I wanted to get to know each other better. So I kept putting them in some semi-intense interpersonal situations. Those scenes had some great moments between my characters. I thought they all belonged in the book. But it was pointed out to me, that I hadn’t written three great character scenes; I wrote one great character scene three times. Two of those scenes hadn’t earned their place because they hadn’t moved anything forward.

How to fix a scene with a repeated purpose

1) Cut all repeated scenes but one. It’s likely that the first one is the one to keep, but it doesn’t have to be. If there’s another scene you like more, you can always move it to the place held by the first scene if that’s where you want the first interaction to be. (This is the approach I used to solve the problem I mentioned above, and it absolutely helped me write a tight novel.)

2) Combine your scenes into one. If you can pick the best parts of each of your repeated scene and smooth them all together into one, this may be the best compromise. You’ll get the parts you love and solve your problem. But keep in mind, you probably will still have to make some tough choices, so if it’s too hard to choose between all your favorite moments, this might not be the best approach.

3) Revise all but one scene. When you revise, your goal should be to be sure that there’s some actual plot/character progression in each scene.

Is your scene boring?

If a scene is boring to write and boring to you to read, it’s absolutely going to be boring to your reader. But sometimes, you may feel like you need that scene because it does, in fact, advance the plot or character development. In this case, the guidelines above do not apply! A boring scene will not help you write a tight novel. If the scene is boring to you, it absolutely has not earned its place in your novel, no matter how far it takes your story.

How to fix a boring scene

1) If you’re holding onto the scene because of the information it provides, take a hard look at your manuscript and see if you would be able to slip that info into another scene. Then cut the boring one. This, I think, is the best option for a situation like this if you can pull it off.

2) But if you don’t like option 1, then you’ve got to find a way to make that scene more interesting! Maybe add some characters or some kind of tension that can contribute to a subplot. Maybe consider combining it with the more interesting scene that comes before or after. But if it’s a truly boring scene, in my experience trying to save it can often be more trouble than it’s worth, so if you’re really struggling, you might want to jump back to option 1.

Are you including a scene purely because you like the writing/it’s fun?

We all have scenes like this. Scenes that were fun to write and maybe highlight the best of your character dynamics but do absolutely nothing to advance anything in your novel. It’s easy to think they serve your story because they bring you joy, but sadly, that is often not a good enough reason to leave them as is.

How to fix a purely fun scene

These scenes are probably the easiest (but most painful) to fix because typically the best fix is to cut them. Taking a timeout for a fun scene tends to be a momentum killer you don’t need if you’re trying to write a tight novel. But you don’t have to get rid of them entirely! Tuck them away for later–they make great deleted scenes for your readers!

I hope this helps you write a tight novel!

Now it’s your turn: How do you evaluate your scenes? How hard is it to cut a scene you like but doesn’t serve a purpose? What helps you finally pull the plug? Do you have any tip that helps you write a tight novel? Tell me about it in the comments!

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