A piece of editing advice often given to writers is “Kill your darlings.” The feedback we receive from readers is important to identify these sections that don’t work. Even if we think it’s the greatest bit of prose we’ve ever written, these “darlings” have to go. If you’re lucky, these portions of your story added nothing to the overarching plot and can be easy to write around. However, what happens when the darlings you just killed leave tremendous gaps in your story?

Chances are, you’ve probably written the entire story before you gave it to someone to critique (at least, that’s how you should do it). You’ve likely spent a bit of time figuring out the logic of the plot, ensuring that actions result in your intended consequences. But if a key event in your plot isn’t landing correctly and you need to cut it, how do you stitch together what you have? How do you make it so you don’t have to start from scratch and rebuild the plot from the ground up?

Most scenes have inputs and outputs.

Quite a few fields have the concept of a “Black Box.” Programming. Business. Engineering. Mathematics. The Black Box is something that we know what goes into it and what comes out of it, but not necessarily what’s in it. However, by using these entrance and exit criteria, we can often deduce what’s happening in the mysterious middle of the Black Box. The beauty is that sometimes these Black Boxes can have multiple solutions as long as it transforms the inputs into the correct outputs.

A well-written scene is like a Black Box. There should be some inciting incident that pushes the characters into the scene. Next, the action of the scene should transform the characters so they’re different upon leaving it. String enough of these Black Box scenes together, and you have a full plot. If a scene doesn’t significantly change the plot if it’s removed, then it’s easy to cut and patch the connecting scenes on either side together. When you need to replace a Black Box scene, then things can be more challenging—but not impossible.

What is the expected outcome?

After receiving some significant criticism of my book, Buried Colony, I knew one of my “darling” scenes had to go. This scene had a lot of plots that hinged on its outcome, so I was initially depressed that I’d need to rewrite the whole book. I took some time to cool down before tackling this problem and realized that I just needed to rework the scene to remove the objectionable material. I also had to dial back one of my characters, which changed the inputs to the scene but not to the entire book. Ultimately, this scene had a particular outcome I was trying to achieve. Giving myself enough time to pivot to other projects allowed me to arrive at the eventual solution for this Black Box hole in my manuscript. It had some slight ripple effects throughout the plot that required me to tweak a few other scenes as well. The most important takeaway was that I didn’t have to rewrite everything.

Now, there are limits to this Black Box approach. If there are a lot of significant changes early in the plot or a character has to be altered drastically, you might need to consider doing a full rewrite. After all, being able to reproduce the intended outputs of a scene exactly can be difficult—if not impossible. These outputs are ultimately the inputs to the next scene, which leads to the next scene, and so on. If they’re a bit off, be sure to check your continuity to ensure a seamless scene transplant has taken place. This is sometimes how writers end up with characters who act “out of character.” Not carrying the effects of the modified scene through the rest of the story can cause this issue.

Using Black Boxes for planning.

Extending the concept of Black Boxes past the editing phase can also be useful for story planning. Often, I’ll have a great idea for a scene that’s not connected to anything else in the story. By asking myself three simple questions, I’ve been able to connect these scenes to the larger plot.

  • What needs to happen to arrive at this scene?
  • What does this scene need to accomplish?
  • How does this scene lead to the next scene?

You might iterate on this approach as you build the bridge between your new scene and the existing parts of the plot. As long as the inputs and outputs of these scenes make logical sense, it should prevent any potential plot holes that might arise from working in this new scene. Alternatively, you can also use this technique to battle writer’s block. If you’re stuck, just think about the next immediate thing that needs to happen, then just build upon that scene into the next one. When you reframe scenes as Black Boxes that fit together like puzzle pieces, it can be much easier to plan, prod, and polish your story into a finished product.


What scenes in your writing have been easy to cut? Difficult to cut?
What different actions can your characters take to arrive at the same result?
If you get writer’s block, are you looking too far ahead in your plot?

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