The Nameless Horror

Lessons In Plotting 3: Scenes

I’m pretty sure it was Elmore Leonard, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, who said that every scene in a book should advance the story or else it’s a waste. People get very much up in arms about this (“What about character establishment, motherfucker?!” etc.), but broadly speaking it’s true and whoever said it was right. Motherfucker.

Look at a scene - “Bishop breaks into the corporate HQ”, “Everyone sits around the campfire”, “Maria’s feeling too damn hot and can’t wait for that sexy air conditioning repair man to arrive”.

Now ask yourself “why do we need to read this?” You may get all kinds of answers:

  • Bishop discovers it’s his long-lost friend behind it all. Shocked gasps abound.

  • We learn why Talahasee hates zombies so much.

  • There’s been a lot of action before, and a lot coming soon, so we need a pause, a chance for the reader to catch their breath.

  • Things have been quiet, but this ratchets up the tension and keeps the reader engaged.

  • We see the neighbourhood where the characters grew up. Learning what and where they came from provides context for the choices they’ve made later in life.

  • We first learn about the terrible trouble Maria has keeping her clothes on.

  • This is how Taggart needs to get from location A to location B.

The last one’s the thing to watch for. Unless any of the others also apply - plot or character development, necessary shifts in pacing, establishing a new setting - chances are it shouldn’t be there at all. You don’t need to see A to B if there’s nothing of value in it; you can skip straight to B. You can do it even if it’s not a location but a plot beat; go from the murder scene to “we got lucky with the third suspect on our list” and back to the story. Suspects one and two aren’t important unless they fulfill another one of those criteria.

(Also note that plot development by itself is never enough; there should be more internal logic than “this character does this because the script says so”. Something that’s sadly lost in a lot of modern movie output, for instance.)

You can even use it sparingly to get out of a corner. You leave one chapter with the main characters trapped underground, in a flooding room filled with piranhas and a ticking nuclear bomb (modern bombs, as Fight Club points out, don’t tick, but FUCK YOU, REALITY) and open the next with them swilling cocktails in a nearby bar, soaking wet but very much alive. “I can’t believe we did it,” one says. “No one would ever believe how we made it out alive!”

Sparingly.

(But awesomely.)

I shall refer to this as The Lord Of The Rules, because most of the LotR is skippable A-B stuff with no inherent value. Unless you like songs about dwarves, in which case fill your boots.