Writing Advice: Load-Bearing Literature

I’m going to tell you a little secret about writing.

(It’s not really a secret. Lots of people know this. But I’m going to reiterate it anyway.)

There are many things that are fun to write. Certain scenes. Writers often play with their characters as if they were dolls in a dollhouse. We try out a few things, see what catches us, what counts as plot.

But every scene—every word—must eventually earn its keep.

No matter how much fun it is, a scene, a bit of dialogue, a stray character thought—all must contribute to the bottom line.

I say this because I read a scene recently in which a character went to a location, did pretty much nothing there, was followed by someone else, they had a pointless and unnecessary conversation, and then they each left. And I immediately asked myself, “Why?”

There might have been reasons for this scene, but the way it was written failed to highlight them. If, for instance, we had a bit more of the character’s internal dialogue—that he’d gone to the location to be alone, only to be miffed when he was followed, for instance. Suddenly a light is shone on the dynamic of the two characters. One needs space, the other is perhaps clingy. Or anxious for some reason. Who knows? Because none of that was made clear in this particular piece, so I can only guess.

Writers don’t need to spell it out, of course. They should trust their readers to a certain extent. However, they do need to drop a few breadcrumbs now and then. Else something important may come across as nothing but filler. Or, alternatively, the reader will seek to find something important in what is ultimately a hollow scene. After all, readers assume that every bit of information is on the page for a reason. Even if simply to delineate character, everything presented should carry weight.

No matter how fun it is, no matter how much you adore your little scene—cut it, kill it, if it doesn’t pull its weight. Or—sometimes just as easy, sometimes not—adjust the scene so that it is weight bearing. You don’t always have to murder your darlings; sometimes disfigurement will do.

What must a scene do? At least one of the following:

  • Give insight into a character’s thoughts, desires, motivations, decisions
  • Build and/or give insight into any two or more characters’ relationship dynamic(s)
  • Progress the plot by clarifying a goal and/or outlining the plan(s) to achieve said goal
  • Bring new information to light that may or may not change any of the above (i.e., introduce a twist or obstacle, either physical or emotional)

Every scene should be a step forward for the characters and the reader. There can certainly be setbacks, but even a setback is motion. Nothing should stagnate. Stories build to a climax. Be sure yours is framed and constructed to stand for years to come. No weak joists, no weak scenes.