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May 8, 2014

When Should We Skip a Scene in Our Story?

Boulder in a river with text: Every Scene Needs Obstacles

As I was updating the handouts for my workshops with links to some of my recent posts, I came across my explanation of why story structure matters. In that article, I pointed out how a story I’d read suffered from missing scenes.

That is, scenes that should have been in the story because of story structure—like the Inciting Incident and Black Moment/Crisis scenes—were skipped. Those missing scenes meant readers never saw the characters face their dilemma, never saw them make their choices, never saw them change.

That’s a problem. Every story beat or turning point scene—every time events affect the main story question, conflict, or goal—needs to be included in a story.

But what about non-turning-point scenes? How can we tell when to include them and when we can skip ahead?

When Do We Need to Include Non-Turning-Point Scenes?

Stories consist of scenes that connect in a long, cause-and-effect chain. In general, we’d want to include any scenes that connect the “point A” of one turning point to the “point B” of the next turning point. We usually wouldn’t want to remove any of those links or our story won’t flow as well.

That’s especially the case when the end of one scene refers to a new goal. If our characters state that they need to escape the dungeon, readers expect to see that escape play out in the next scene.

If the next scene instead shows them high-five’ing each other after the escape, readers are going to flip back a page and wonder if their copy of the book is missing a chapter. They’re going to feel cheated that they didn’t get to see how the characters pulled it off.

(And yes, I’ve read a story that did exactly that: skip a “great escape” scene. I’ve always wondered if the author wrote him/herself into a corner and hand-waved away the conflict. Not a good sign for the story.)

But, but…in Captain America: Winter Soldier

If you’ve seen the new Captain America movie, you might have noticed that the director did, in fact, skip a scene that seemed to be the next link in the story. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it yet.)

In one scene, Captain America and another character are discussing how to do X, their goal for the next step in answering their questions. A third character says he could help them, but the only place to get the gadget he needs to help them is locked up and protected by…and he rattles off a list of security issues from guards to the gadget’s physical location.

Okay, so we’d expect the next scene to be the action-packed play-by-play of them acquiring said gadget, right?

Nope. The director skipped that scene, and most people probably didn’t even notice. How did he get away with that?

When Can We Skip a Non-Turning-Point Scene?

We can skip a scene—even an action scene—if there’s no conflict.

I can hear the collective “huh?” now: How could an action scene have no conflict?

Remember that conflict isn’t arguing or punches or even a really cool martial arts move. Many an action movie feels empty of story because there’s no real conflict, just scene after scene of “bam”s and “pow”s.

Conflict—real conflict—is the gap between what characters want and what actually happens.

If characters say, “We need to get to that tower,” they’ve established their goal, the “what they want” plan of action. If they then go on to punch and kick their way through 500 bad guys and get to the tower, there was no conflict. Yes, really. *smile*

On the other hand, if they battle those bad guys and experience setbacks on the way to the tower—if it’s not a straight line from point A to point B—then there’s conflict. Those setbacks, either plot or character-based, are the key to storytelling.

As I say in my workshop, “boy wants girl, boy gets girl” isn’t a story. We need the reverse, the setback, of “boy loses girl” in the middle to make it a story.

The same requirement applies to scenes. If a scene simply shows us what we already know will happen (because that was “the plan”), we lose interest in most cases.

Should We Cut Scenes without Setbacks?

The exception to that requirement for a setback is if we’re interested in seeing the how. Movies based on real-life events often fall into this category. We already know what will happen in the big picture, but we want to see how it all came together and experience the journey.

Often, stories in that category have a too-good-to-be-true or disbelief aspect. We might know the ending, but we can’t quite believe it and want to see it for ourselves.

But if there’s no question of the outcome and no overriding interest in discovering the how, we’d typically be able to skip ahead in our story unless we needed to include the scene for its other elements.

This is the same reason we usually skip “driving scenes.” A character says they need to go someplace and they go. We don’t need to see the journey unless something happens to upset the plan. Instead, we’d simply skip to the scene of them already at the destination.

How Captain America Skipped a Scene and Made It Work

In the Captain America:Winter Soldier scene, after the third character announces all the risks they’ll encounter in trying to acquire the gadget, Captain America and the second character look at each other, shrug, and say, “No problem.”

In some movies, that line would be meant as an introduction to irony. Sure, the characters think it will be no problem, but little do they know…xyz.

In that case, the xyz would be the setbacks, and yes, we’d want to see the scene so we’d know how they overcame the problems. Upset plans are great conflict.

However, in Captain America, we don’t need to see the scene because of two reasons:

  • Everything went according to plan.
  • We believe Captain America and his cohort when they say it will be no problem.

Hmm, no setbacks and no disbelief? Yep, it makes sense for the director to skip that scene and go straight to the scene where they have the gadget and are pursuing their previously stated goal.

(The director also wanted to skip the scene to keep the nature of the gadget a surprise. But this explanation is still the underlying reason for why it worked and the audience didn’t feel cheated.)

The characters had stated the goal of X, and that never changed. Instead, the mention of the gadget was simply introducing the idea that the third character had a surprise up his sleeve. “Getting the gadget” was never established as a goal, only as something to watch for in the next scene.

Analyzing Our Own Stories for Scenes to Skip

In our own stories, we can analyze the obstacles our characters face:

  • If we come across a scene without setbacks and where everything plays out as planned, we can ask ourselves if we really need to give the play-by-play.
  • If our characters feel like they’re just going through the motions, maybe they are. Maybe they’re just following the plan and nothing surprising happens. In that case, we can ask ourselves if we need to show the plan in action.
  • If something feels too easy for our characters but we want to include the scene for other reasons, we can add setbacks. Think of anything, plot or character-wise, that introduces uncertainty or story questions: “Will Z happen?”

Whether our scene is quiet or filled with bam-pow action, if nothing upsets the plan, we might not need to show the scene. Now, don’t mind me, I’m off to double-check my scenes. *smile*

Have you read stories that skipped important scenes? Have you read stories with unnecessary scenes? Do you struggle with knowing when a scene is necessary or not? If you’ve seen Captain America: Winter Soldier, did you notice the “missing” scene? Did it bother you, or do you agree with this analysis?

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24 Comments on "When Should We Skip a Scene in Our Story?"

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Angela Quarles

LOL, I think mine was the one that skipped some important scenes 🙂 But yeah, this can be hard. I’d also add that if the setback (conflict) has nothing to do with the goal, that could be an issue too. I recently came across this with one of mine and had to rewrite it this week to make the setback tied to the goal and disaster (the horse scene). Last week I went through and ruthlessly cut scenes that had no conflict. But it’s also important to recognize when scenes are actually sequels and not to cut them if they’re needed.

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

Great post Jami!

I noticed that missing scene and agree that the movie was better for it not being there – especially since its absence added humor.

There was a missing scene in Captain America that did bug me – the scene where they were traveling from NJ to *REDACTED*.

There was no obvious plan or path for them to get to their destination. There was conflict and extreme risk. While the whole journey didn’t need to be shown, the beginning did.

-Jay
@jaytechdad

Sharla Rae

Great topic, Jami. I’ve often had problems with this very thing. I get itchy at these times, like a bad feeling and then I start second guessing everything. My first clue is that if doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. 🙂 I like the way you break it down here. Makes things more simple.

SBibb

Interesting points. I hadn’t even paid attention to the scene in Captain America. But now that I think about it, I think it worked well, for the points you said.

I also like what you said about how some action scenes don’t have conflict. I’ve noticed that a lot of shows/movies have action scenes that tend to be boring (at least to me), and I suspect its for the reasons you’ve mentioned– little or no setbacks. It’s something I’ll definitely want to keep in mind while working on my manuscript.

Kerry Gans

A great example of your “movies based on real-life” is Apollo 13. Every one of us in the audience knew how it ended, yet we were all on the edge of our seats. Even though we knew the ending, we kept saying to ourselves, “They’ll never be able to fix THAT!” as the problems mounted.

Carradee

Something worth noting is which scenes should be skipped depends on your genre. Madame Bovary‘s a case in point—it glosses over scenes most novels would expound on, while expounding over scenes most novels would gloss over, because it’s satire.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Good advice!

“If we come across a scene without setbacks and where everything plays out as planned, we can ask ourselves if we really need to give the play-by-play.”

I can think of an exception though. In my story, there are some romantic comedy scenes where you KNOW what will happen, and things do indeed go as planned, but I want to keep these scenes in anyway, because they are really amusing and funny (at least to me), add lots of character development, and clearly advance the (romance) plot and as usual there’s sexual / romantic tension. I even counted 9-10 scene elements for each of these two particular romantic comedy scenes I’m thinking of, so I think this justifies these scenes existing? Lol. They are also some of my favorite scenes in the whole novel, so I definitely wouldn’t want to cut them out!

Funny or amusing scenes in general I think shouldn’t be cut. But this might be especially true for the comedy genre.

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