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Scenes to Cut, Those to Save

By Martha Alderson, M.A.

Most writers end up writing at least twice as many scenes as needed to produce a compelling story. One skill that defines a good writer is the ability to know which scenes to keep and which ones to kill off. As a plot consultant, I developed two visual plot tools to help writers select those scenes that best advance the story and then make those chosen few truly great.

The Plot Planner approaches plot from the overall story level and The Scene Tracker breaks down plot at the scene level. Both of these tools support writing plot as a layering of dramatic action, character emotional development and transformation, and thematic significance.

Both approaches are highly structured. Left brained, analytical writers catch on and appreciate the tools quickly. However, for right-brained, generative, creative writers the plot tools tend to be counter-intuitive and thus, overwhelming. However, for all writers, after experiencing the freedom of structure, and once you understand the structure of stories and how to create a compelling and multi-layered plot, you are free to do anything you like with your writing.

Every scene that deserves to stay in the final cut must work on a multitude of plot levels at once. The most important elements, however, always go back to the three primary plot threads in every good story - Dramatic Action, Character Emotional Development, and Thematic Significance. The Scene Tracker and the Plot Planner help you track these plot lines for each of your scenes and visually determine how they work together for the greater good of the overall story

Three scenes above all others need to work particularly hard. Those three scenes are:

1)The End of the Beginning occurs about 1/4 of the way through the entire project. This moment symbolizes the end of all that has been. After that, the only way forward is into the very heart of the story world itself - the Middle. The critical introductory portion of your story - the Beginning - ends with a cliffhanger that propels the protagonist into the unique world of the story and promises change.

2)The Crisis generally occurs about 3/4 of the way through the entire project. It constitutes the most highly charged event in the Middle and carries enormous energy. At the Crisis, the character is often given an experience that opens her eyes, perhaps for the first time, of how the events themselves are not responsible for keeping her from achieving her goals, but the choices she has made up to this point.

Each scene in the middle portion of your story serves to march the protagonist one step closer to the Crisis. The protagonist believes she is marching closer and closer to her long-term personal goal. When the Crisis hits, she is shocked. The audience, however, has experienced the steady incline and feels the inevitability of this shocker from the linkage between each scene and from each thematic detail.

3)The Climax occurs just before the final moments of a movie and usually one chapter from the end of a novel. The Climax constitutes the crowning glory of the entire work. The Climax is the final outcome as a direct result of how the protagonist responds to individual events that have occurred throughout the story. The build-up to the Climax shows the reader or the movie-goer whether or not the character is changing. How she responds in the highest event in the entire story shows whether or not she has matured and been changed at depth.

The Plot Planner helps guarantee you produce each of these three scenes at just the right moment. The Scene Tracker helps guarantee that each of these three scenes contain at least seven essential elements and contributes to a layered and nuanced whole.

Excerpts of this article were taken from Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple by Martha Alderson, M.A.. Her book can be purchased separately or as part of the Scene Tracker Kit.

Meet the Author: Martha Alderson, M.A.

Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of plot books for writers: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing, The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. She has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, mem...