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When is it OK to have a Scene that Doesn't Advance the Plot?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Vaporo, Nov 29, 2019.

  1. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Lately, I've been writing some important character introduction scenes, but something about them just didn't sit right with me. I couldn't quite figure out why. They seemed serviceable enough for a first draft. But then, it hit me. The character introductions were literally just that: character introductions. Basically just exposition on who the story will be about. Nothing really happens that affects the plot, nor is the reader's understanding of the setting expanded on.

    As an example, one scene has two characters riding in a wagon delivering bags of flour to their home. When I wrote it, I had no plans for the scene to have any greater significance other than to introduce the main characters. The scene felt rather clunky until the end when the two new characters encounter another of my main characters arriving in town. While the scene still mostly feels clunky, I felt like that last part redeemed it somehow. Even though the encounter was entirely random and unrelated to what was going on between them, it at least felt like the scene went somewhere.

    However, that got me thinking. Does every scene have to advance the plot? Is it really so bad if a scene is just there to introduce a character, so long as it doesn't feel forced or artificial? And if it is, can it really be fixed by something as simple as ending with a random encounter with another character? What are your thoughts?
     
  2. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Every scene has a job to do. Advance the plot, build character, create tension, all of the above. So yes, you can have a scene not advance the plot, but it better have something else to do or it doesn't belong there.
     
  3. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    As above. There's three main parts to a story. Plot, character and world, and every scene should connect to / advance one of these things. If it doesn't than it probably doesn't belong. But if it does than keep it but assess it according to how it fits your story. What do you want the scene to do? Achieve greater understanding of the MC? Round out the world a bit more? Or push the story along? There's nothing wrong with it doing any of those things. Only if it does none of them.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  4. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    The reader has to learn something from a scene. It can reveal plot, but it can also reveal character or setting.
    Sounds to me a bit like the problem is more with inelegant exposition.
     
    Night Gardener likes this.
  5. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    As an author you can also come back later, do those scenes and edit them in where they belong. Honestly I've hit against the same sort of thing that you describe and it just sucks all the momentum out of my writing. I've been most successful when I've just leaped in right away and fucked up my character's lives.
     
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    You are probably right that the ending validates the rest of the scene, or at least it’s attempting to do so. It could be that the rest isn’t validated, and it’s only the ending that works... hard to say. The bigger answer is yes, every scene (chapter) needs to move the plot forward, but the bigger problem is defining what that means. There are different ways of doing so, and they are similar. One is that either questions pertaining to the story must be asked or answered. Another way to look at it is that the plot is something like the Doomsday Clock. Every novel will (or should) have multiple Plot Clocks made up of the internal and external journeys of the characters. If at the end of a scene/chapter all of the Plot Clocks are at the same time as they were at the start of the scene/chapter, you have an issue. Even in an introductory scene, where a character’s external or internal Plot Clock starts at 1.. everything is grand! Singing happy songs! By the end of the scene the clock should move to 2 or beyond. Movement, progression. Static shows weakness.

    Now, looking at the scene in question, it would appear that you’ve introduced new characters (Plot Clocks set) and then introduce them to a MC... This will almost automatically move the clocks of both characters in the reader’s mind because they know an author doesn’t slap characters together by coincidence... And it’s better if you make the movement obvious. Now, if their meeting literally ends up meaning nothing, you’ve got an issue, but I doubt that’s likely.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2019
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    It's OK anytime, so long as the scene is doing some other work (in other words, I agree with the comments above).
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    When is it OK to have a scene that doesn't advance the plot?
    When you do it well.

    I'm pretty confident there are passages in any one favorite book of any one of us that don't advance the plot. Or, to be more precise, where we as readers don't notice much one way or the other. Similarly, there will be passages where any two of us would disagree over the passage.

    To paraphrase the sage, not only can you not fool all of the people all of the time, neither can you please all of them all of the time.
     
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  9. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Mmm, passages and scenes/chapters are two different things. And of course much depends on definition of “advancing the plot”. I doubt you’ll find many scenes/chapters that do not advance plot/story somehow, even in literary fiction. I do recall one chapter from SoIaF where a character travels... I think it was Arya... the only thing I felt was advanced was her physical position on the planet. It was time passage wasting my reading time far as I could tell... yes, it had Arya ruminating over life, but even that advanced nothing. I’m relying on memory, of course, but it was almost like a sequel for a chapter. And that might’ve been being petty and easily bored, heh heh. When you dig into high end successful genre fiction you’ll find motion, change. And if that change is going to take a while, it’s often foreshadowed, as in Chapter 1 of the Fellowship of the Ring, where right off the bat Tolkien is almost saying “yeah this going to open slow”, but he foreshadows the change with Bilbo not aging and folks saying no good will come of it. Change/advancement should be one the hallmarks of a scene/chapter.

     
  10. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    There's a rule of thumb based on this that I think about now and then. If a scene advances all three of plot, character, and world, then it's a keeper. If it only advances two, then it could probably do with a revision. If it only does one, then it might need cutting. If it does none, then it has no place in the story.

    Obviously, that's a bit simplified and it's often not that clean cut, but it's good as a talking point.

    What I'd like to add is that if a scene only advances the character, or the world, then the reader needs to be interested in reading about it. If a reader is being fed information they don't have any context for or interest in, it doesn't matter how important it's going to be to the story later on.
     
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  11. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    I think that's the thing. The scene must engage, interest, entertain even. The information it provides may be peripheral. It may not be strictly necessary to the story. But if it keeps the reader reading, it has done its job. Conversely, a scene full of important information, if it is dull and unwieldy, has not done its job at all.
     
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Here’s the thing for me... I see everything as plots and subplots. Character, world? Neah, . Most world and characterization bits are going to move the plot clock on somebody or something, it’s in the nature of things. And when I say move the plot forward, I mean it changes something. This could be the main external plot, the main internal plot, the MC’s internal journey (arc), the MC’s external journey (arc), internal subplot a, b, c, d, etc., external subplot a, b, c, d, etc., the internal or external character arcs of other major players.

    I tend to look at this from the POV character of the chapter and what has changed.

    A prime example of writing that doesn’t move any plot clock is the prologue to the Fellowship of the Ring... and behold! That’s why they aren’t part of the story, they’re extras.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Yeah, it'd be worth asking what the OP means by "advance" in this context. DemesnedenoirDemesnedenoir gives one way (though one could talk a bit about what "change" is and how much is enough to count). For that matter, how small a unit is a scene?

    The one VaporoVaporo describes is a scene and as revised it eventually advances the plot. But the whole first part felt clunky. So, is the wagon ride a scene in itself, liable to be cut? Or is the wagon ride only part of a scene and maybe the whole thing gets cut?

    Lots of times, these are perfectly clear, but not always.
     
  14. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Well, to me the length of a "scene" is totally arbitrary. It's one of those things that everyone just kind of implicitly understands, but doesn't have any sort of hard formal definition. Personally, I think of a scene as the largest continuous section of the story the could be feasibly filmed with a single shot in a movie, or a section of a play between the curtains closing to rearrange the actors and set (Which is probably where the word came from to begin with).

    Honestly, if we replaced every occurrence of the word "scene" in this thread with the phrase "arbitrary section of text" it would still more or less make sense.

    Broadly speaking, when I say "advance the plot," I mean "Contains events that cause a change in situation, setting, or character dynamics that is relevant later in the story" which the wagon scene did not. It was miniature plot thread totally isolated from the rest of the story. The rest of the story ground to a halt to tell this small, irrelevant mini-story.

    The solution I'm working with for now is to keep the wagon scene more or less as is, but try to shorten it and make sure that the events of the scene have some consequence later on. e.g. One character doesn't live at the destination and doesn't want to stay the night, but when she tries to walk home in the dead of night she becomes tired and instead stops to sleeps at the local tavern in exchange for washing dishes. This is also where the MC arriving in town is staying, so come morning they have a chance to meet each other properly. Because she didn't come home the night before she also gets chewed out by her parents, etc. etc.

    EDIT: It's kind of like the problem that people have with Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings. He shows up, has his scenes, and then only ever comes up again once just so that Gandalf can ironically dismiss him as irrelevant to their plight.

    I like this interpretation. Personally, I'm a believer that anything can be written, so long as it is written well.

    I'd kind of been toying around with a similar idea: Every scene can advance the plot, advance the character development, or enhance the reader's understanding of the setting. The best scenes usually have all three, but most scenes should aim to have at least 2 out of 3. Trying to have all three in every scene seems to be a bit much to me. A scene can do just one so long as it's a really good scene, and if a scene does none then it probably deserves to be scrapped.
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2019
  15. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    You don't nees to have events that change something. A scene can also reveal something to the audience that will be relevant to future developments. Even if it's background or character exposition. What changes is that the audience knows something they did not before. That's still story progress.
     
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    If it reveals something that will become relevant... it is change.Character exposition may or may not equal change.
     
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  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    It wouldn’t need to advance the main plot, so long as it advances a subplot or character arc... but I haven’t read the original piece in question, so I’ve no idea, LOL. But, my definition is very loose and forgiving.
     
  18. J.W. Golan

    J.W. Golan Dreamer

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    Part of it has to do with the pace and style of your writing. A lot of us will have chapters that are really all about character development, with little or no plot evolution. Character development is just as important as developing the plot. If the readers can’t relate to or sympathize with the characters, then they really won’t care what plot befalls them. Like the red-shirts on the old Star Trek episodes: What? Another one of those died? No tears here. If the entire show was made up of red-shirts, no one would be watching it.

    My advice, since it sounds like you’re still in the stages of writing your first draft, is to try not to over-think it. Just finish the complete novel, get all your thoughts and impressions down. Wait until you’re ready to edit the work from start to finish before you decide whether any particular scene was unnecessary or if it needs to be polished and/or expanded. Getting that first draft done is immensely important, no matter how incomplete or rough it may feel.
     
  19. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

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    Every scene and hopefully every line has a job to for fill. (advance plot, evoke setting, character and theme) If it's doing none of those it's not worth having. Or if it's only doing one and the next scene is doing the others try and combined the two scenes.
     
  20. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Minstrel

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    I came across an interesting piece of advice from Brandon Mull regarding this. His golden rule for writing is:

    Don't bore the reader

    As long as you follow that rule, you can get away with almost anything. Of course, you can go overboard by writing lots of interesting but irrelevant scenes. But that would require you to take this to extremes.

    Personally, I would simply write the scene (or keep the scene) for now. You can always remove it later. You never know if something that happens in the scene isn't going to be relevant later. I recently wrote a scene at the start of my story where the protagonist walks past a painting depicting some scene. When I wrote it, I simply included the painting to set the scene a bit, thinking I could always take it out or replace it with something more interesting. But as I near the end of the story, I've found that the painting actually foreshadowed some events in a sort of "history repeats itself" kind of way. So it's staying in and it will get polished some more when I rewrite that first scene.
     
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