Plotting: How to Know Which Scenes to Include in Your Book

By JodyHedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently I was reading a book (to remain nameless), and I realized I wasn't enjoying it. The cover of the book had drawn me to it along with the premise. All in all, it promised to be a fun, light-hearted romance.

But I only made it about a quarter of the way through the book before I finally gave up.

As I analyzed what I didn't like about the story, I realized one of glaring problems was that the author was missing quite a number of important scenes. She'd glossed over sections or summarized events that I would rather have read in detail. I was left empty and longing for more from the story than what the author had given me.

The experience brought to mind the question: How do writers know which scenes to include and which ones to summarize?

Obviously we can't write every scene that takes place over the time period of our books which usually spans weeks or months. We have to narrow down how much of our story and character's lives we reveal on the page. That means we often have to summarize events or leave them out entirely with the assumption that our readers will piece everything together without having to know every detail.

While I don't believe there's a hard, fast rule or formula for which scenes to write out in detail and which ones to summarize, I think there are a few principles we can keep in mind when choosing scenes to include in our books:

1. Include scenes that contain the most action. I always imagine myself at a theater production sitting in the audience watching the stage. And I ask myself, what scenes would I like to see acted out more often: scenes with people sitting around talking (and summarizing what they DID) or scenes where the people are actually moving around and acting out the story?

Yes, we will have slower scenes of contemplation and dialogue . . . but we should minimize such occurrences and instead choose scenes where something is actually going on, where our characters are encountering the bad guy, facing illness, hitting another conflict, etc.

2. Include scenes that move the story along in a significant way. We don't want to pick action scenes simply for the sake of having more tension and drama. Such scenes may add excitement to the story but don't really contribute to character development or to the plot in a meaningful way.

I'm reading a YA book right now that has one action-packed scene after another. The character is always fighting a battle against someone whether it be goblins or zombies. But the book is dragging because very few of the situations move the plot along or cause her to grow as a person.

A good test for whether an action scene (or any scene) is truly needed is to cut it out (mentally), and if it doesn't make much difference in the story (other than to add drama), it probably wasn't needed.

3. Include scenes that have multiple goals. Once I've picked my most action-packed scenes and made sure they serve a purpose in moving my story along, then I do my best to have those scenes serve multiple purposes, to pack as much punch into that short span of story as possible.

I try to weave in character development, focus on relationship issues, highlight minor characters, foreshadow, tie in symbolism, bring my setting to life (and vary the setting), add in more unanswered questions, etc. Every scene should have numerous reasons for being included in the book.

4. Include scenes that share important developments in the relationship. When choosing scenes for a romance, we MUST include pivotal interactions between the hero and heroine. This is one of the most critical points for romance writers.

But what exactly are the pivotal moments for a hero and heroine? I believe that includes anything they do together for the first time–the first meeting, the first date, the first fight, the first kiss, the first family visit, the moment they declare their love for each other, etc.

Romance readers want a glimpse of what emotions the characters are feeling for those firsts. Our characters should act out anything significant that happens between them and leave the summarizing for the mundane.

For example, if our characters eat together, we would want to show the first meal so that our readers can see the stilted conversation or the playful banter. But unless something changes in their relationship, we can summarize the next meal they share (or gloss over it).

So those are some of the ways I decide which scene to include in my books. What are some other methods you use for deciding what to include in yours?


  1. I'm working on having my scenes work harder for me by having multiple goals. I like when I see that. It gives me, a reader, to much to think about, as well as clue to find or miss.

  2. I think selecting scenes is an especially delicate decision for the beginning portions of a book. Usually you're not into too much high action yet, but you need the draw. Scenes can't be all character and setting development. I just read a book yesterday that I almost discarded because the first two parts (half the book) felt like set up. Some portion of them were necessary and obviously, there was some promise of more to come (I kept reading anyway!) but I felt like it could have been done in 2-3 chapters and not half the book. A lot of, what felt like, unnecessary scenes. Conversely, later on in the 'good parts' of the book, I was disappointed at the speed with which they went by. Perhaps the author was realizing she had to finish it up or have a huge book on her hands but had it been plotted differently in the initial scene selection...

    As usual, very good tips Jody!

  3. This post is timely for me. I'm writing my first draft of a novel that includes a sportscaster and a professional baseball player. I'm trying to figure out how many scenes from the game to include because obviously not everyone loves the game as much as I do. :-) Thanks for another helpful and informative post, Jody.

    1. Heidi, while I don't know really anything about baseball, I would definitely be interested to read about it, as long as there's not a ton of technical terms that only fans would understand :) I don't watch sports at all but am a huge fan of sports movies!

  4. Jody this is so perfect! My current WIP needs trimming, and I'm trying to figure out which scenes must go. These tips will be very helpful. By the way, I love how you are making "pinnable" photos for your site- very clever. Will pin next!

    1. Hi Julia,

      I love making the pins since I'm such a visual person. Plus it makes sense to have those easy, clean photos to post onto Pinterest too since I'm such an avid fan of Pinterest! Thank you for pinning! :-)

  5. Oh my goodness, I hope this wasn't my book! Paranoid, I guess. lol I try to be careful about the scenes I choose for inclusion. I find it harder when I write shorter novels, though, and wonder if others have that same problem. Your advice is excellent and worth considering every time. I like to include scenes that justify the character's motivations. I heard a sermon the other day and the first 20 minutes were strictly about what the pastor intended to talk about. I felt like standing up and saying don't tell us your intentions, just tell us already. The rest of the sermon was great and I don't mean any disrespect, but it did teach me something about writing. But too many explanations and apologies weaken a scene, I believe. We need to write with confidence to be more plausible.

    1. Oh no worries, Carla! It's not your book! ;-) And good analogy with the sermon. We like getting to the meat, the good stuff. We have to remember that with our stories too!

    2. Big sigh of relief. haha! Glad you are still blogging and sharing your wisdom!

  6. Here my brains thinking movie trailers , or book trailers or movies themselves... Can you see your book Rebellious Heart in movie Form... I can !!!!

  7. One thing that helps me decide whether or not to include a scene is if it includes tension between the characters (though I don't always use this as a deciding factor); it's interesting to write about how they express/suppress that tension, because then it can tell me something about their personalities and relationships with each other.

  8. Thanks for the great tips Jody. I am trying to tie up my book but the characters seem to keep going. It is important to find out which scenes are crucial and which are just me not wanting it to end. :)
    I am posting your tips by my computer!

  9. These are great tips that you don't see very often! Perfect timing, too. I've been trying to decide which scenes are imperative and which I can lock in a drawer somewhere for a rainy day. Especially like #4. Sometimes it's challenging to decide how much relationship to show so that the reader can get a proper feel for the tension or camaraderie.

  10. Hey everyone! Thank you for stopping by! I'm so glad that the post was timely for so many of you! :-) I think it's a good reminder for all of us, including me as I'm writing my next book!

  11. This is an awesome and extremely helpful post! I really like the idea of giving each scene multiple reasons to be in the story. I actually do
    "show" my hero and heroine's first meal together. It's a big scene, too! Very pivotal moment where the heroine tells the hero things that shake up their whole relationship, and challenges what he has always believed to be true. It starts out with humor and awkwardness but ends in tears! I didn't realize how much I needed my scenes to do that until reading this, though :)


© All the articles in this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without prior written consent from the author. You may quote without permission if you give proper credit and links. Thank you!