I’ll be writing about the video Making your scenes plot relevant – writing hacks and tips on how to write a better book, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
My general advice with writing a story is that everything in your story, whether it’s a tiny moment, a whole scene, or a large section, it should be plot relevant. If it doesn’t add to your story, it doesn’t belong in your story. So, how do you tell if what you’ve written is plot relevant or not?
Your Story Has To Move Forwards
When you’re looking at your book or your script, if there’s a part of your story that you could lift out without interrupting the flow of the story, then it should be removed. If it can be removed, it’s not plot relevant.
Going off plot makes your story tedious to read. It can push you into feeling stalled because you realise you’re not moving forwards.
When Scenes Aren’t Plot Relevant
It’s easy to go off plot for a variety of reasons. Some of them you might relate to, and all of them I’ve done at some point.
You might go off plot because you have an idea that you want to follow. At the time it feels interesting. You send your characters down a path because you’re intrigued and excited to explore it.
Whilst initially it can be entertaining, you find yourself so far away from the main plotline that you don’t know how to get back. You’re just wading through water. Or you’ll bring them back to the pain story just fine but they’ve not learned or anything or changed anything about the main story. That makes the whole side adventure completely meaningless.
If you want to include a side adventure, either find a way to make it move the story forwards by sewing some important information they need to learn into that side track, or ditch it. There are always more stories to tell. You don’t need to cram every single idea you have into your first.
Realistic But Boring
Another reason you might explore scenes that are not plot relevant is by showing things happening that, technically, are realistic, but are incredibly dull and not at all entertaining. Your character will go to the bathroom, they’ll queue up in the bank, they’ll sit in traffic.
These things are all real and your character will likely experience them. But if you spend time in your prose showing it, you’re not moving the plot forwards. You’re just stalling and it will feel incredibly dull.
Scenes That Aren’t Plot Relevant In Stranger Things
An example of going off plot that will alienate your audience in in Season 2 of Stranger Things. Eleven is sent off on her side adventure episode. It was not a well received episode because, even though in and of itself it was perfectly fine, it distracted from the main plot that everyone was invested in.
If you had lifted that episode out, and just stayed on the main storyline, then the series would have played out exactly the same, but without leaving the story at an exciting and tense time. A side adventure takes all the momentum that you’ve built up, and then drains it.
Exceptions To The Rule
The exception to this rule, that is an important one, is when you’re adding jokes. A scene can function perfectly well without a joke in it, and it won’t change the actual story. But the joke adds a quality to a story that you can’t get in any other way. Not all stories benefit for jokes, of course, but if your story and style require jokes, don’t apply this rule.
One point I will also add is this, there are famous and well received authors who enjoy a side plot. Steven King is often including information that isn’t plot relevant, but his books are still read and loved by the millions.
Just remember this, even if you personally love that style, Steven King has the benefit of a massive audience. They will love anything he writes because of their love of his specific work. If you don’t have a massive and loyal audience, you’ll find your readers less willing to go with your personal indulgence of wandering far away from the plot line. So, generally, avoid it, because it is less likely to bring in the audience you want than if you don’t.
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