Every scene has to keep moving the plot forward. I don’t mind if there are little side stories or distractions within a chapter… little side details are things that I thrill about when reading a long novel (as long as the tangent is interesting, even if irrelevant). Not every sentence has to be about important things BUT there should be a pivotal something in each scene that drives the story forward to the end.
If you’re truly showing instead of telling, there will be lots of words at your disposal and your word count won’t suffer if you edit entire scenes out.
This thought about ‘moving the story forward’ has come about because I’ve just earmarked two paragraphs of writing that I have to expand into ‘show not tell’ instead of editing out. In the first draft I initially wrote this scene in a ‘telling’ manner, partly because that’s what first drafts are like anyway, and also partly because this book has become VERY large. It was only supposed to be about 90-100K words long and I’ve already written 97K and I can see that I need roughly70K more to finish. I was wondering if I could just take out the scene entirely, to save myself some work, but I needed it to drive the story forward in terms of character motivation… if my character doesn’t have the experience of this particular scene, he won’t be motivated into action for the next one. So this scene actually drives the plot forward (and ties up a loose end to boot). I actually need it rather than want it. So I will rewrite it, expanding on it in the interest of quality–if the reader experiences the happenings at the same time as my character instead of skipping over and being told what had happened, the story will be richer. Word count will just have to be ignored until I get to the end… that’s when I will have to be ruthless.
I’ve heard it said that authors of a long series can afford to dither around a little. I disagree. I have an extremely long contemporary fantasy series planned out (about 6 books in total but book one might have to be split if the word count gets too high so it might be 7 books), but should that mean I can afford to bore the reader with something irrelevant somewhere in the middle? Do I want to risk them flipping forward a few pages? I think not. This is why people have opinions about certain book series being better during THIS numbered book over THAT numbered book. Have you ever noticed that it’s usually the books in the middle or end that are considered lesser quality? I don’t think it’s because the writer has burned out or is paying less attention… I think it’s because they’re being more indulgent and not cutting the stuff they would’ve cut if it had been book one.
Am I going to fall into that trap? It’s possible, but I think being aware of it will help keep me in line. Wanderer of Worlds gets more complex with emotions and motivations tangling as I progress further into the story… which I hope heightens the experience for the reader as they pick up each book, continuing the story. As long as I do it right.
So how does a writer know if a scene is moving the story forward? How does a writer judge?
These questions can be answered with some other questions…
If you edit a particular scene completely out… does it affect the story overall? Would readers be confused? Would they wonder if there was something missing? Do they need to know what happened in that scene to understand what happens later? Are you tying up any loose ends?
To keep myself humble, I’ve started telling myself this: If the reader doesn’t need to know, then they don’t want to know.