A month ago I wrote a post called Test That Scene – Is It Essential or Filler? The basics of it are this:
No Filler Test
Question #1 – If deleted, will the reader still be able to follow the story? If yes, you’ve got filler!
Question #2 – What is different by the end of this scene? If nothing, it’s filler!
Question #3 – What/Who does this scene affect? If nothing/nobody, it’s – you guessed it – filler!
If even one of these questions results in “filler”, the scene should be cut or revised. But how do you know which option to choose?
That’s the issue I’ve encountered as I write and revise the outline for my WIP. I never create totally inessential scenes, and if a scene is two-thirds of the way there (i.e. satisfies two of the three test questions), my instinct is to revise not cut. Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, but I found my story dragging anyway. If I’d revised them into fully fleshed-out essential scenes, why did they still feel like filler?
And then it hit me, in screenwriting terms of course: not every plot point needs to happen on screen. In novelist terms, the reader doesn’t need to experience all plot points in real time; sometimes it works best if they experience the aftermath. The trick is to know which plot points need to be scenes and which don’t. After studying my own mistakes, I’ve come up with three questions to help figure this out…
1) How important is this scene to the hero’s goal? Does this scene address the main story problem? For example, in my WIP the heroine is cheating to boost her grades high enough to get a college scholarship. After she gets caught, I had a scene in the Principal’s Office where her punishment is doled out. However, the heroine doesn’t care what her punishment is; all that matters is that she was caught and can’t use her conventional methods of cheating anymore and has to find another way to succeed. So though this plot point (getting punished) needs to happen, it doesn’t have to happen onscreen, so I cut it and covered the information via some quick exposition in the next scene.
2) Does this scene hinder the story’s pacing? Something else I noticed about the above scene is that it delayed the story’s Inciting Incident. Even as I was writing it, my inner critic was like, “Get on with it! Get to the Inciting Incident faster!” Cutting this scene facilitated that.
3) Are you trying too hard to make this scene essential? This is my downfall. As I mentioned, if a scene is two-thirds of the way there, my instinct is to add something to make it complete, and I found myself creating an unnecessary subplot in order to add more conflict and change to the Principal’s Office scene. At first I thought this was brilliant, and a day later I realized it violated question 1 and 2 of this list – it was not important to my heroine’s goal and it slowed down the pacing.
So what I’ve learned this week is that if a scene fails the No Filler Test, more often than not the scene needs to be cut not revised, and its important information redistributed to other scenes.
Now to go apply this to my WIP!