Sometimes as we write our subconscious seeds our stories with hidden gems, like how or where your protagonist will find the answer to his surface problem*.
In Bob Mayer’s book, Novel Writer’s Toolkit, he talks about a writer getting stuck with a particular problem in the story (the main character needs to discover some vital information in order to solve the mystery) and not knowing how to resolve it. It only took a quick look back through what was already written to find the answer in a short bit of description (several journals the character had seen on a shelf in another character’s office).
Another possible hidden gem your subconscious could work in is a story-worthy problem.
While it is important to give at least a minimum amount of thought to what your protagonist’s underlying issue is, sometimes the real issue develops deep within your own mind and isn’t revealed until you begin writing.
For instance I recently wrote a scene where my main character’s father, an ordinarily soft-spoken and gentle character, speaks condescendingly to his son, my protagonist. It’s a scene I’ve hated reading because it makes me uncomfortable. I’ve considered several times removing it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
However, since going back to basics with this story and trying to develop myself into more of a planner and less of a pantser, I’ve realized this scene reveals my main character’s story-worthy problem — the need to believe in himself. Had I taken it out before finishing the entire story I might have missed this very important detail.
On the other hand, those “special” scenes that we feel the need to defend as “necessary” may not be necessary at all. They could be little darlings, as Stephen King calls them, and need to be eliminated (or at least banished to a folder far far away from the rest of your civilized manuscript).
To know the difference you can ask this very important question: does this move the story along? If it does, great! If it slows things down you may need to cut it. At the very least you’ll have to revise it, which means shortening and tightening.
A lot of my personal little darlings tend to be flashbacks and memories. They’re fun scenes and often moving, but necessary? Probably not. Some of the information needs to remain, but there are certainly better ways to scatter it through the rest of the story.
One example from my WIP is a flashback where my protagonist’s father is teaching him what the term “warming up” means. It’s cute, even endearing, but it really slows down the story. Instead, I’ll be re-writing the flashback into a memory, most likely as a couple of sentences instead of the several paragraphs it currently is. It’ll be painful, but it’s necessary.
Writing a great novel can be tough, but thankfully we’re not alone. There are multitudes of free blogs and inexpensive books we can read to help us learn about craft. Best of all, there are other writers and readers out there we can get in touch with thanks to social media who can become our mentors and beta readers. With all those great resources available, it makes it that much easier to decide if that scene is a hidden gem or a little darling.
How do you make that decision?
*For more information on surface vs. story-worthy problems check out Les Edgerton’s book Hooked.