Making Your Scenes Work Harder

When I started my novel, Cradlesnatch, I estimated it would be around 50,000 words, which is normal for a YA novel. However it’s looking like the finished draft will be more like 90,000 words, which may be too long in the eyes of publishers.

So I put my brain to thinking about how to reduce the length of my manuscript without losing any of the story elements. Happily, while I was still cogitating, I happened to watch the old Planet of the Apes film. There is a scene in the film where George Taylor is trying to write in the dirt, so the ape scientist, Dr Zira, will realise he’s intelligent. However, Nova, the girl who is with him wants to rub the words out. A lovely example of goal and conflict forwarding the action.

But in film every scene has to pull it’s weight. So, before the girl rubs out the letters, Dr Zira, is distracted, first by her fiancée, Cornelius, who arrives and gives her a kiss, and then by a conversation they have with Dr Zaius, the Minister of Science, about Cornelius planning an archaeological expedition.

All this is in conflict to Taylor’s goal in the scene. But it also reveals Dr Zira’s relationship with Cornelius, and introduces an expedition which becomes important later in the plot.

And it doesn’t end there. When Nova begins to scrub out Taylor’s writing, a fight starts between him and another male. The guards are called and we hear Dr Zira say ‘Stop! You’ll hurt him.’

This clearly states her sympathetic view towards humans. As Heston is dragged off, a gorilla guard says ‘What’s Dr Zira trying to prove?’ to which Dr Zaius replies, ‘That man can be domesticated.’ The gorilla’s laughter is all we need to understand the normal ape view of humans.

The scene ends with Dr Zaius looking at the remains of Heston’s words and scrubbing them out with his cane, suggesting he knows more than he’s lets on.

The scene is like a lasagne, with one story element layered on top of another. Nothing goes to waste. So it’s time I revisit each scene in my novel. Do I have one scene which establishes character, another which sets up plot, and a third which forwards the current action? If so it’s time to mix it up and make my scenes work harder. Hopefully there’ll be plenty of left-overs I can scrape into the editing bin to get my over-weight manuscript nice and trim.

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from,,,, iTunes and Kobo.

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