So, yeah, right, scenes. Loosely defined as the smallest unit of book building, built of many of the sub-units of book building known as mugs of coffee.
Essentially, I see a scene is the smallest piece of your book that can be self-contained. It can be a paragraph or even a sentence, but if you lift it out of context and hang it on your wall, it can be read as a piece. Most of my scenes are a few paragraphs to a few pages.
They're also something I tend to focus on when I'm editing, because they're, in a word, achievable. If I look at 100,000 words and tell myself that all that has to be coherent, de-adjectived, copy-edited, proof-read and thrilling in a few months' time, well, that way leads to 'Author Not At Work' syndrome, not to mention 'Drunk Author Tweeting'. A few paragraphs to a few pages, though? Easy. Get 'er done before dinner. Do that for a couple of months, and *BAM* edit done.
Right, but why focus on scenes again, aside from my motivation issues?
Well, basically, because we've all read those books. They can be great books (I'm going to cite the Wheel of Time series here), but you find yourself at about page 423 thinking 'Why the hell didn't an editor come through here with a flamethrower?' or 'These eight books could have been a trilogy'. Sure, those 423 pages may have been full of well-structured, well-developed stuff. But was it all actually stuff necessary to the story, or did the author, in the process of writing, bolt a jacuzzi, a sunbed, and a whole ten-room mansion on the top of the Ferrari?
Please note, I'm not knocking jacuzzis. Or ten-bedroom
mansions, come to that. They're great. But are they what the Ferrari needs
to be, well, as Ferrari-like as possible?
Scenes are good to look at because you can read them easily as a piece, and ask yourself some basic questions to determine if they're vital, fascinating, or a jacuzzi.
Question #1 I ask myself a lot as part of my edit process is: does that scene need to be there?
If not, can I put a big red line through it without leaving a plothole, a continuity hole, or missing a vital bit of character development? Is it, in fact, the kitchen sink on the Ferrari of my storyline?
Question #2 is if that scene, if it's really bothering me but does appear to be vital, needs to be there in the story.
Would it stop sending me Code Yellow alerts at the other end of the book? Sometimes you write something, and it is actually great and a vital bit, but your subconscious had a hiccup and spewed it up on a page about fifty pages too early. Or too late.
Alternatively, would that scene make more sense if I (yes, sometimes, really) add some set up so it makes sense? Because sometimes, when I'm writing, something that's absolutely crystal clear to me, the author, is absolutely not crystal clear to a reader. Why is that damn planet so important that they'd send an entire fleet there? ... well, it's rich, it's central, it's famous ... did you tell your reader that?
If you're looking at your scene, and it's not, technically, vital storyline advancement, you can't think of anywhere better to put it, but you still feel it's doing something useful, you're on to the last item on the checklist:
Question #3 Is the scene serving as character development (or general society / atmosphere development)?
Because while dumping 400 pages of nothing but backstory, society dev and character dev on your reader is likely going to get your book used as a doorstop, yes, you do need some of that good stuff in there. Otherwise, why is the reader going to give a damn if your protagonist saved the unicorns / galaxy / right to personal freedom?
In short, if you're staring at a scene in your book and you can't make an argument for its survival under any of these three reasons ... most likely you can pull the plug on it. 'I thought it was hilarious' is not, necessarily, a good reason to include it.
Look on the bright side. If you delete it, you don't have to edit it. And your readers will thank you for it.