Trimming Your Novel: Medium-level Trimming

You’ve already taken a step back from your story and trimmed superfluous content that doesn’t fit into three-act structure. Now it’s time to inspect the remaining scenes.

At this stage, we’re still not quite worrying about word choice and sentence structure — rather, we’re concerned about whether our scenes begin in the right place, end in a timely manner, and do not repeat content from earlier scenes. As well, we want to ensure each scene is pulling its weight by developing character arcs, advancing plot, and informing theme.

What makes a good scene?

Randy Ingermanson’s “Writing the Perfect Scene” is an excellent read. Using Dwight Swain’s terminology, he describes scenes as either being “Scenes” (which are sequences of action) or “Sequels” (which are sequences of reaction).

Confused? You’re not alone. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll capitalize “Scene” and “Sequel” when referring to these two subcategories of scenes.

Let’s break it down:


  1. Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the Scene. The goal must be clear and concrete to the reader and related to the story’s main goal. Scene goals make your protagonist proactive in pursuing what they want.
  2. Conflict: What hurdles stand in the way of your protagonist obtaining their goal. Conflict will make up the biggest chunk of your Scene.
  3. Outcome: Whether your protagonist obtains their goal despite the conflict(s). Most often, the outcome should be a negative one — too many positive Scene outcomes, and your protagonist too easily achieves their story goal and the story ends.

Some people like to call the “outcome” a “disaster,” which emphasizes the fact that when we’re storytelling, we don’t exactly want things to tidy up nicely. We want something awful to happen so the protagonist has to dig themselves out of a hole.


  1. Reaction: Something (likely awful) just happened to your protagonist in the “outcome” of the preceding Scene. This is a space for the protagonist’s emotional reaction.
  2. Dilemma: Because your protagonist likely didn’t achieve their previous goal (or they did, but with grave consequences), they are now stuck with a dilemma on how to proceed. What options are available, and what’s at stake for each choice? Your protagonist considers their situation.
  3. Decision: At last, the protagonist decides which option among (likely equally) terrible options to pursue next.

Notice how the “decision” immediately forms a new “goal” for the protagonist? That’s the “goal” for your next Scene. You will want to alternate Scene > Sequel > Scene > Sequel > … throughout your story. Longer Scenes (full of action) make your novel’s pacing faster, while longer Sequels (full of reaction) will slow your pacing. Keep in mind action doesn’t make sense without a little introspection, and introspection is boring without a little action.

If you want to read more deeply into the discussion of Scenes and Sequels (including how to vary them), check out K.M. Weiland’s How to Structure Scenes in Your Story Series.

Trim scenes with Scene and Sequel

Now that you know what makes a good scene, you can make sure each scene in your story is either a Scene with a carefully crafted goal, significant conflict, and a relevant outcome, or a Sequel with an emotional reaction, a terrible dilemma, and a final decision on how to move forward.

Anything that isn’t a Scene or Sequel isn’t pulling its weight and should be cut, or transformed to have all three components of either a Scene or Sequel.

Trim the scene’s beginning and end

When writing, sometimes we take a while to warm up to a scene. There may be a few sentences (or even a few paragraphs) that ease us in. Likewise, sometimes scenes drag on a bit after a Scene outcome or Sequel decision.

Analyze each scene in your story and trim its beginning and end as much as you can. Enter late, exit early. You might be surprised how many extra words you can cut without losing anything important!

Trim excess description, monologue, and dialogue

Look at the middle of your scenes and trim any excessive description, internal monologue, and external dialogue.

If you use four sentences to describe a character, can you rework that down to two? Do you really need three paragraphs to set the tone for the scene, or can you accomplish it in one? And are there any sentences summarizing what just happened for the reader? This last one is a matter of confidence — if you showed what happened, trust your words are doing their work. You don’t need to repeat yourself.

Keep only the best parts. Don’t bog down awesome ideas with ones that are mediocre at best. Chop ruthlessly!

Cut scenes that don’t advance plot, character, AND theme

Each and every scene in your novel should advance plot, character, and theme. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this scene move the plot (that is, create change)?
  • Does this scene advance your character’s arc?
  • Does this scene inform the theme?
  • Is this scene vital to the climax (that is, would the story make sense without it)?

If you answer “no” to one of these questions, consider whether this scene has a place in your novel. If the scene serves plot but not character, can you revise the scene so it also advances character? Or is it better to remove the scene altogether and migrate any important plot-relevant details to elsewhere in the story?

Next week

Next week’s article will dive into my favourite part — cutting words by making your prose lean and mean. (It is now available here)

Return to the Trimming Overview page.

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

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