Why is this scene in your novel?
“The one thing your work gets there [Hollywood] is a lot of criticism, which boils down to: ‘Nothing is happening, what is driving this scene?’ These are pertinent questions of the type a novelist is rarely asked, and without a doubt my sense of storytelling has been hugely enhanced.” – author and screenwriter William Nicholson in his Guardian Interview
Readers doing reviews on Amazon often say a book has bored them, that it went on and on without much to show for it. Let’s stipulate that some of these reviews come from readers who are like commercial fiction and don’t quite know what to make of literary fiction’s penchant for more description, interior monologue, lengthy back stories and other diversions.
Nonetheless, when they’re reading within their favorite genres and say a book is boring, reader reviews often make good points. Sometimes they can’t find the novel’s story at all; or, it otherwise took too long to tell. When a novelist hasn’t asked himself/herself why each of his/her scenes is in a novel, s/he’s like the teller of a joke who takes too long getting to the punch line.
“Screenplays,” says Nicholson, “are done on the basis of asking who is my hero, why should anyone love this person, what do they want, what is stopping them getting it, so how are they going to achieve it, and how can we admire them for achieving it?” While the pacing of a novel is much different than a movie which must fit into a 90-120-minute block of time, these are still viable questions to ask when planning a novel.
What, exactly, is the story here? Once you know, then every scene should advance that story within the scope of the protagonist and his or her progress throughout the novel. Is s/he going some where, looking for something, fighting somebody, wrestling with inner demons, seeking a relationship, covering up a dangerous secret, planning a crime, or what?
When we ask “why is this scene in your novel” the best answer is that it moves the story forward toward the ending the writer has planned. One need not write the terse, action-packed short chapters of a Dan Brown to move a story from its initial question/hook/challenge to the outcome at the end.
Veteran writers/teachers often say “we must kill our darlings.” No, these are not our favorite characters; they’re the scenes we enjoyed writing that really don’t belong in the book. It’s hard to cut them, and we don’t always have to. Yet, like every other scene in a novel in progress, they need to be viewed ruthlessly in light of Nicholson’s question: “what is driving this scene?”
The length of the novel isn’t the defining criterion here. Whether the story takes 60,000 words or a 150,000 words to tell, it’s important to remember that we’re telling a story, and stories have within them a constant flow of movement from beginning to end.