How Do You Know When To Add (Or Delete) A Scene?

We recently had an excellent question. The question was, “Do you have to put a sex scene into a book?” What this person is really asking is, “How do you know when to add a scene to a book (or even delete it)?”

It really all comes down to the character. The main character (or characters as the case may be) is the key to the entire story. Everything needs to revolve around him. Everything you use in a scene, whether it’s in the setting or in dialogue or action, needs to advance the character’s journey. The journey starts when the character has a desire for something. The journey is complicated with conflict, and there can be a couple conflicts that pop up along the way. The journey isn’t complete until the character either receives his desire, which makes for a happy ending, or comes to realize he’ll never get what he wants, which makes for a sad ending.

So keep this in mind when you’re thinking about what to add or take out while you’re writing your book.

In the case of sex, does the character learn something new about himself or the person he’s with during the act of sex? In that case, put the scene in because this is where something new is added that will advance the character towards his goal. In the case of romance, sex is usually the stage where the hero and heroine are able to be vulnerable but also safe, and this can add very well to the advancement of the romance. The romance doesn’t have to be the main plot of the book. If you’re writing a fantasy and have a romantic subplot where the two realize they are falling in love during sex, this can work.

Sometimes we get so hung up on sex, we don’t think of other elements to add or not add in a book, such as violence. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller. The killer is a brutal man who shows no mercy. Well, how do you best show it? You have him do something like have our villain break some bones and cut out another person’s tongue. This is showing how bad our “bad guy” really is. That way, you’re showing it. This also advances the plot because the detective will want to stop this.

So when thinking about what to do with a scene, always keep in mind that the scene has to move the character one step forward–or somehow hinder–their goal. If the scene doesn’t do any of that, I would say it’s not necessary.

21 Comments

  1. I have a lot of experience with this. I originally had a sex scene in Reborn City, but I took it out because it didn’t do a thing for the plot. In Snake I included a sex scene because it allowed the main characters to grow closer and for my hero to decide his course of action. And in Laura Horn I took out several scenes and added a few because they either were just filler (which is when I deleted them) or they could do something for the story (which is why I added them). It takes a lot of thought and work to decide which scene to keep or get rid of, but it’s something every author has to go through, in my opinion.

    1. I do think the sex scene in Snake added to the plot because of the character development and also relationship development. Both were affected.

      It takes practice to gauge whether a scene belongs in a book or not. As we write more stories, we get better at knowing this.

  2. ronfritsch says:

    I agree. A scene (sexual or otherwise) should be included only if it advances the story. Sometimes it won’t be readily apparent as the scene unfolds, but a good writer will always make the connection later on.

    1. Excellent point. I love it when something doesn’t seem apparent right away, but later as the story progresses, it becomes clear on why the author put it into the story. I think it makes reading a lot more enjoyable when I have to connect some dots.

  3. I remember deleting a scene, basically saving the first half but removing the second half, because that second half was nothing more than wish fulfillment for me by having one of my main characters knock a drunken boor on his ass. The drunken boor was a variation on my worthless former brother-in-law. Writing the scene was good therapy, but it wouldn’t have worked for the larger story.

  4. This blog article comes at a great time for me, getting a work in progress ready for review. Thank you, Ruth Ann and Janet, for this practical guide to scene preservation.

    1. Thanks, Mary Jo! I’m glad you found this useful.

  5. MOST of the time, I have to add scenes rather than take them out. I write kind of lean, and a beta reader might say “I would like to know more about _____”.

    When I first started writing, I had a tendency to go into too much detail about the food the characters were eating. I got called out on that by a beta reader years ago. I was so sad because I’m a “foodie” and I love to write about it. If I was writing a mystery, for instance, and the main character was a caterer or something like that (like in Diane Mott Davidson’s books), then it would be appropriate to give more food detail. But not if it wasn’t relevant to the story. I will have to say, however, that some readers (who weren’t also authors) told me they liked my detail about food. That leads me to believe that most readers aren’t as picky as fellow authors are. However, it’s always better to be safe than sorry about stuff, so now I try to keep the food stuff at a minimum unless it’s relevant. 🙂

    1. Readers aren’t nearly as picky. They just want a good story that will entertain them. They often don’t stress the details.

      I hate adding scenes when I’m done with the first draft. I’ve done it because I did think my beta reader was right and it would enhance the story, but it was like pulling teeth to do it. Once I’m done, I want to be done. I’d rather delete a scene that doesn’t work than add one that will. 🙂

      1. I don’t know, I really hate deleting scenes, so I guess I’d rather add if it’s not a huge chore. I’ve taken beta readers’ advice on adding scenes sometimes, and sometimes I didn’t agree. I usually don’t have to take much out because, as I said, I write pretty lean anyway. Ultimately, we have to decide what to do, but it’s good to have betas that give good advice and that see what you can’t see.

        1. Most people would rather add a scene than delete them. The way I see it, if I delete a scene, I can always post it as a bonus feature in my email list. 🙂 So far, this hasn’t happened. Instead, I end up adding a scene to send out.

          Yep, ultimately, it’s the writer’s choice in what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the story, but the input is nice to have.

    2. I wrote a book where I cut the food – I didn’t tell what they were eating just “they had dinner” or whatever and I got several comments afterwards with “I wanted to know WHAT she ordered!” so I’ve put it back now.

      1. LOL You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.

      2. I TOTALLY want to know what the characters are eating. That’s why I hated it when the beta said that’s a no-no. And I did get slammed in a review over writing too much about food in one book.

        1. Is it possible this person who slammed you in the review knows you and just wanted to take a dig at you personally? I can’t imagine that most readers would care as long as they were enjoying the story.

        2. I do too- though I once read a book where all they do is eat sausage. In the end I had to run to the store and get some sausage Lol!!! Power of suggestion much?

          1. Joleen, that’s so funny! Ruth, I don’t know. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that to me. I’ve never hurt anyone. But…there are authors who do that kind of thing to the competition.

            1. I suspect it’s another author. For whatever reason they decided to use that to pick on. Sadly, it seems that there are a few that latch onto another author and go after all their books. I don’t understand it.

          2. LOL Something like that can definitely happen. 🙂

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