Deleted Scenes Issue #1

You’ve got to know when to hold them, and know when to cut them out and let them go forever and move on, sprinting to the next paragraph with glee. Maybe you’re cackling, and lightning appears behind you.  How can you tell when a scene isn’t working? Well, you better figure it out before you send it to your dream publisher or agent.  

The editing process isn’t just about spellcheck or the weird process of ‘fact checking’ fiction – maybe that’s another article in the near future. (I swear, I’ve had the oddest conversations with editors about fact-checking fiction.)  

Next to being alive, and the actual writing, editing is the most important thing a writer can do to have success. However, there are so many variables to think of: word count, sentimentality, being tricked by your own brain, being stubborn and thinking you are perfect — it never really ends, the problems a writer can face. The entire process of writing is about deceiving yourself, to a degree.  

Being a writer is like becoming a totally different person. When I interviewed Giller Prize winning author Suzette Mayr fifteen or more years ago for The Danforth Review, I brought up the topic of visual arts and the act of writing and publishing. I found similarities to non-writer artistic roles and the role of the visual artist. “I absolutely agree with this idea that writers are visual artists. I also think they are actors,” Mayr said. me. “The good writers tap into all the senses all the time and I know that when I write certain characters it is a physical feat. In my second book about older women, I did a lot of just walking around my house and work and up and down stairs, I tasted food and washed and dried dishes all making my body think about what it would feel like if I were 50 years older than I am. It is also essential that a writer show the world they’re writing about; this taps into visual and sensory angles that I imagine visual artists have to too.”

Keeping Mayr’s words in mind then, how can we honestly know if we’ve done a fictional character justice, if we don’t completely invest into the idea, the vibe, that we are making things up and, to a degree, have absolutely no way on earth to determine if we’ve captured the character in the right way. We’re the silly gods of our own world. But what if what we’ve conjured up isn’t working? What if we have to cut things we’re afraid to cut? What have other writers said about cutting out scenes, scenes perhaps they long thought would be there in the final product when they signed the first copy of their book at the launch? 

Let’s see what two complete strangers have to say about cutting scenes from works-in-progress. 

“I’ll usually take out the first and last paragraph to see what the story looks like without them…Taking out the first paragraph always throws me more quickly into the story and into my “voice” and the first paragraph was just filler while I got used to the topic. Then I might write the whole piece again. Or I might write paragraphs over. Then I take out extra words. Then extra syllables. And I don’t like punctuation except for the period.” 

– James Altucher, author of Choose Yourself  

“Identifying error. Or identifying the bad writing that they do. The problem is, first, to know when you are not writing well and, then, to be able to fix it. It’s a craftsman-like problem.” Toni Morrison, author of, among others, Song of Solomon

As a writer, knowing what to keep and what to cut takes a lot of practice. In the early 2000s, DVD culture was still running wild, and the bonus DVD that came with certain releases usually came with a few deleted scenes from the feature. The term, ‘deleted scenes’ became a part of regular speech – even though it was limited to the world of DVD – eventually it became a part of the fabric of how we understood the filmmaking process, and ultimately, understood why things were taken out. Sometimes, seeing deleted scenes on the bonus disc would infuriate movie-goers, as they debated to themselves, or anyone who would listen, why on earth the director / film company would allow such a pivotal scene to be cut. 

In the less glorious industry of paper and words, authors don’t have their deleted scenes immortalized in a bonus book that comes with a novel or a book of essays, etc. Even poetry. Even lowly poetry doesn’t get a bonus book released that goes behind the scenes of what stays, what goes, and why. 

And now let’s see what some contemporary authors who had the time to share a few examples of their own deleted scenes. 

dee Hobsbawn-Smith 

I deleted a butcher scene from Danceland Diary relatively late in my final editing and revision process. Three men – a young man newly married, his father-in-law and his brother -in-law- out in the shop in 1917, dismembering each other verbally as they take apart the steer. I cut the scene in spite of its visceral power and emotional charge because I cut the timeline that it was part of, a third timeline that provided characters and plot complexity to a novel already thick with both. The timeline – 1917 – ended up being a footnote, so to speak, its characters and events referred to by people in the 1943 and 2012 timelines instead of being scenes in and of themselves.  It was a good lesson in focus and deleting the extraneous characters and details that provided too much detail without moving the story forward. Cutting the scene and the entire timeline helped me to tighten the novel and see ways to rearrange the remaining scenes and timelines so that they flowed more congruently and were easier for the reader to follow. 

Miriam Edelson 

“The scene I never wrote did not appear in a piece I called, “In Praise of Older Men”.  Although I told the story of my infatuation with this particular individual, I did not want to reveal his identity. It might have hurt someone close to him and would not necessarily have looked good on me. He was a very powerful, charismatic person, well-liked and even lusted after by many in our circle. Since my book in which the piece appears was published, I’ve had a few people ask me who he was/is. They’ve even made wild guesses, eager to know his identity. What I didn’t write was how much I yearned for him over a long period of time, before we consummated anything. I didn’t write much about how moved I was by his romantic attention, when it finally came. I know I didn’t mean that much to him – he was tickled by the burning desire of an attractive, much younger woman but his response to me was not freighted with deep feeling. I, of course, was over the moon and it took me a while to come down to earth and realize that for him, it was just a casual affair.” 

Jonathan Whitelaw 

“Deleted scenes always make me excited. It gives me a tingle, a sense of optimism that there’s something new, something you’ve not seen or read before out there. And it can change your opinion of a novel, a movie, a TV show etc completely. I remember when the Star Wars movies were re-released in 1997 – complete with deleted and new scenes. It was, for an 11-year-old me, the absolute ultimate treat. Now that I’m a writer, I see them a little differently. Part of being a published author is collaboration and editing. There’s no end product without that. And that means, sometimes, that things get cut out from the final product. It is, always, for the best. But being a writer, there’s always that sense of ‘what if?’ about those scenes, good and bad, that have been dropped. For my third novel, I ended up losing 70,000 words. In fact, only the first and last chapters remained intact from the first draft. I knew as I was nearing the end of that first go around that it wasn’t right and big changes were needed. But I persisted, preferring to see the project through to the end before drawing out the literary scythe. And I’m glad I did. What became the final book was MUCH better than that original draft. Strangely, though, it wouldn’t have been the case if I HADN’T gone through the process. It’s part of the craft. For my most recent novel, The Bingo Hall Detectives, the opening chapter was written and rewritten at least a dozen times. There remain at least four or five alternative, deleted scenes where the reader is introduced to Amita and Jason, our amateur sleuths. It was important to me to set the tone of those characters, the setting, the mystery etc, right from the off. And it needed to be perfect. Like I said, writing is a craft, it requires time, effort, study and, most of all, the courage to take risks, try new things and ultimately work towards making your world the best it can be. Deleted scenes are great. But there’s usually a very good reason why they’re deleted.”  

Lucy EM Black 

Stella’s Carpet explores the intergenerational consequences of trauma, including those of a Holocaust survivor and a woman imprisoned during the Iranian Revolution.  The book is 186 pages in length.  Originally, I had written an additional eighty pages detailing superfluous background information about the main character.  A story editor I hired, slashed those pages and said they detracted from the heart of the story.  The feedback hurt at the time, but she was right.  The final text is quite lean and I think it reads well.”  

Blaise Hunter

“The underpinnings of Captain Communicator are all about ways to battle a rare illness. I first wanted to take the reader deep into what my experience is like day-to-day and expose the raw and real parts of someone fighting for their life. As each chapter unfolded, something didn’t feel right. The narrative would’ve taken on a more negative tone. So, I made the decision to shift from what the struggle of sickness looks like to what courageous healing resembles. It was the right call.” 

James Tennant  

“There was a scene in River, Diverted that I wrote very early in the process – back when the novel was still part of a bigger, more unwieldy work. The scene was based on my experiences the day my father passed away. In this early version, where there wasn’t even a river – Daniel was the main character and narrator. I took several elements from my own experience and stitched them together. I liked the opening, with Daniel working in a vegetable warehouse, perched atop swaying crates of corn, watering them (a real damned thing I had to do once). Daniel receives the news, takes a subway home to Yonge and Eglinton, and encounters his family members who were loosely based on mine. Then, he walks up the stairs to the bedroom where his deceased father lay. It was a powerful scene and I liked it a lot. Nevertheless, this was one of the first scenes to fall after I realized that River, not Daniel, was the main character. While River’s father does die, the event isn’t given the same weight. The novel, when it was about Daniel, was very much about that death. River, Diverted simply was not, and though it was a good scene, it had to go. It put too much emphasis on an event that was no longer front and centre.”   

What are some experiences you’ve had with deleting scenes, editing, or making difficult decisions about a final edit? We’d love to hear from you. Use our Contact Page here to get in touch.

Please consider sharing this article with other writers, creative writing students, or anyone you know who is interested in how the book world operates. Because it’s not like the book world tells new writers how to do anything of these seemingly-impossible-to-know things about the wild world of writing and publishing books. 

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