One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my writing is excess flab. I have a bad habit of putting in scenes that I like (important, wonderful, fantastically written scenes) just because I like them, and not because that’s where they should actually go (or be in the novel at all). This led to really big, unsellable books full of tension killing, sacred cow scenes that went nowhere. It took me a lot of editing (and a lot of bad feedback) to finally learn my lesson: just because a scene is good does not mean it has a place in your novel. The good ship book is a small vessel. There’s no room for scenes that don’t pull their weight. But I’m an author. I generally like everything I write on some level (otherwise, why would I write it?) So how do I know what DOES belong?
To combat this problem, I created a checklist I call “the three hooks”. Whenever I am planning a novel, the first thing I do is write out everything that happens. If I don’t know what happens, this is when I figure it out. Some authors can just get an idea and go, and I do that a lot, too, but in the end novels always come back to their essence: a pile of scenes leading the reader from the beginning to the end. Once I have this pile of scenes, either in finished or outline form, I take each scene and I apply a set of standards. For the scene to pass, it must:
- Advance the story
- Reveal new information
- Pull the reader forward
Without all three of these elements, a scene, no matter how good or beloved, is just wasted words. A scene that does not advance the story, like a flashback revealing character information that is not pertinent to the story, may be brilliantly written, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not reveal new information, say a talking head recap scene, may be chock full of snappy dialog, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not pull the reader forward, say a break in the narrative where everyone is happy and all their needs are met, may be very cathartic for the author, but it does less than nothing for the book. In fact, I’d say a scene like that would give you negative progress. Resolved tension leads to put down books, and that is not what we want!
These hooks don’t have to be obvious (in fact, the more creatively you can hide them, the better things get), but they do have to be there to keep the story rolling. These are the hooks that keep your reader reading, the tiny little claws of interest you constantly need to wiggle into the reader’s brain to keep them turning pages. If every scene in your novel moves the plot ahead, reveals new and important information, and gives the reader a reason to turn the page and move on to the next scene, then you’ve got a book that a reader can not put down, and that is what it’s all about.