Friday, March 25, 2011

Special Topics in Calamity Novel Repair: Part 1

Over the next few weeks, INTERN will be running a special series on novel revision. Or, if you share INTERN’s alarmist tendencies and fondness for plays on book titles, Special Topics in Calamity Novel Repair.

INTERN, alas, is not one of those whiz-kid über-writers who can bang out a novel, revise it in a week, and have it shipped and ready to print while everyone else is still figuring out they have their pants on backwards (in fact, INTERN has her pants on backwards as she writes this post.) Quite the opposite: INTERN is one of those horribly inefficient writers who lumbers around like a crazed elephant, sowing disaster at every turn, and deletes not just sections but entire drafts before she finally arrives at the draft she considers done. If INTERN is lucky, this is a phase she will grow out of with enough practice. For now, though, INTERN is a die-hard novel reviser.

If you are the same way, perhaps you would like to come along with INTERN on a revision safari. Our Special Topic for today is redundant scenes. Hold on to your elephants. Here we go.


INTERN has seen countless first drafts which are littered with redundant scenes—scenes that unwittingly make the same point or convey the same information over and over again without bringing anything new to the story. Here’s an example from an imaginary novel let’s call Marcia Lopez Is Seven Feet Tall.

Scene 1: First day of school. On the school bus, kids point at Marcia and laugh at her for being seven feet tall.

Scene 2: School gets out. Marcia goes to the candy store, where the shopkeeper laughs at her for being seven feet tall.

Scene 3: Dinnertime. Marcia’s new step-dad laughs at her for being seven feet tall.

Scene 102: Climax of the novel. Invading space-aliens laugh at Marcia for being seven feet tall.

As you can see, all four of these scenes have exact same function: showing how Marcia is an outsider. Sure, the details get switched up a little, but there’s no forward motion at all. This might work in a picture book, but it gets old fast in a novel.

Other common culprits for redundancy include “getting-to-know-you” scenes, training montages, and scenes showing characters falling in love. Taken individually, any one such scene can serve an important function in your story. But when you show your characters twirling around a skating rink holding hands, then lying in a field of daisies laughing, then snuggling on a couch watching movies, and nothing is changing or moving, then you’ve got yourself some redundant scenes.
How do you recognize when your scene is critical to the story and when it’s redundant?

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. What does this scene actually DO?

(show the characters falling in love/show MC’s deepening dedication to becoming a basketball star/develop conflict between MC and her rival/etc.)

2. Do any other scenes do the same thing?

(yes/no/sort of/yeeeeees, but that scene where they lie in the daisies is just soooo sweet)

Obviously, it can take more than a single scene to fully develop a relationship or conflict. But the key word here is develop. That means in each scene, something important will have shifted. Instead of six “getting to know you” scenes, you’ll have one “getting to know you” scene, one “getting to hate you” scene, and one “getting to find out you’re my long-lost twin” scene. Readers will get bored if you keep presenting the same old information (Marcia Lopez is seven feet tall!) over and over again, no matter how many ways you can find to dress it up.

Once you stop writing redundant scenes, you will be delighted to find that your novel will mysteriously develop a greater sense of tension, conflict, and forward motion. Hurrah! Calamity fixed. Well, the first one, anyway…


  1. Thank goodness guy lying among the daisies is not canoodling with seven-feet-tall Marcia Lopez.

    Like this post very much.

  2. Oh boy, back to draft number 306 to check for redundant scenes.

    Thank you - this was very useful.

  3. Noted :) No one laughs at my seven foot tall girlfriend ... except when she picks me up to kiss me.

  4. Ah, but see, the fact that Marcia has a bad relationship with her new stepdad means that her being seven feet tall is a problem not just with her social life, but with her home life, too. The candy shop scene can be cut, as long as she bumped her head on the school bus, establishing the practical difficulties that are unrelated to the social problem of being laughed at. And who cares what aliens think?

  5. Intern, I've missed you, glad to see you're back to blogging!

  6. This is so true! I realized I had redundant scenes when I started using scene cards as I plot along. It's easy to see when you have them all laid out in front of you and they all look pretty much the same :)