Thursday 29 November 2012

When A Scene Isn’t Working

There comes a time when you have to face facts. You’ve tried to convince yourself that scene where your main character goes back to her old house and stares at it for four pages is a good scene, an important scene where the reader learns things they need to know, but... it just isn’t a very interesting scene.

You know this because none of the people who’ve read it have ever said anything good about it. Quite a few have said bad things about it. And most have not mentioned it at all. You could take their silence as a sign they’re okay with it, but do you really want to write a story that’s just okay?

So, something’s got to change.

You basically have two options. You can cut the scene completely, or you can make the scene better.

With the first option, it’s rare to be able to lift out the scene and that’s it. Sometimes it is possible, if the scene was unrelated to the plot and just a fun interlude of some sort, but mostly it will either have to be replaced with a new scene, or the information contained in the old scene will have to be worked into the rest of the story somehow.

Personally, I think a brand new scene works best (although it requires more work). If things happened in the old scene that are pertinent to later events and you try to squeeze that info into other places, it can end up feeling like heavy-handed exposition.

You cut the scene where Sandra meets Debra and finds out about the new shopping mall being built in town, and you go straight to the scene where she’s having dinner with her husband. But instead of getting straight into the action, you now have half a page of:

“So where were you this afternoon?”
“I went to see Debra. You’ll never guess what she told me...”

There’s no point cutting a scene that isn’t working only to add a summary of the scene that didn’t work. If you cut you have to really cut.

The second option, improving the scene, is usually the best way to proceed, although writers are resistant to making the kinds of changes required. A few line edits and introducing a chatty waiter aren’t going to be enough.

You have to really go back to basics and work out what you’re trying to do with the scene and come up with a completely new approach to getting that message across. I’m not saying there aren’t ways to tweak the current version into working, but once you’ve spent so much time with Version A, it’s going to be very hard to see it any other way than how it already is. You’ve been honing and trimming and getting it just so for so long that being able to see it fresh will be nearly impossible.

Far easier is to go back to the start of the scene and start again. Take into account where the characters were just prior to the beginning of the scene. How did that affect them? What mood are they in? What are they hoping will happen now? And then the first time a choice needs to be made, if you went left in Version A, go right in Version B. The more different you make it, the easier it will be to come up with fresh ideas.

And it’s important to remember if Version B ends up being even worse than the original, that doesn’t make Version A any better. It still doesn’t work, it’s just that Version B was worse. So, time to start working on Version C...
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Quick reminder about WRITE TO DONE's annual TOP 10 BLOGS FOR WRITERS 2012. Voting closes December 3rd. Go HERE and leave the name and URL of your favourite writing blog in the comments section with a few words about what you dig about the site. Thanks to everyone who's voted for Moody Writing, much appreciated.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I already nominated you! And I think you are up for Best Writer Blog at A Peek at Karen's World's annual blog awards as well.
I usually scrap and rewrite if a scene just isn't working.

mooderino said...

@Alex-thanks, you're a star. Had no idea I'd been nominated somewhere else. Will check it out. Cheers.

Cally Jackson said...

When I re-wrote The Big Smoke, I started with a blank page for a lot of scenes. I found that lessened the temptation to steer along the familiar course. A lot of scenes in the book are 1000 times better for it so I'm glad I put in the extra effort. :-)

Anonymous said...

This is advice often forgotten by writers. There's nothing wrong with re-writing, and usually it makes the scene (and/or book) better -- that or worse, as you said; in this case, best hope you have honest readers who will point out the atrociousness.

Thanks for posting!



mooderino said...

@Cally - I think it's the extra effort that puts a lot of people off, but short cuts often take twice as long as you try how to keep things the same and change them at the same time.

@Alexandra - the temptation is to run back to the original version when the new one doesn't gel, at least that's how it feels to me.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I tend to rewrite scenes that are not working. If they still don't look right, I delete them.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - got to be a little bit ruthless to get the best out of your writing.

Tara Tyler said...

great advice! i am sad when a scene doesnt work and i have to lop it off! ah well, some usually gets recycled!

mooderino said...

@Tara - cheers!

Anonymous said...

A timely post! I just figured out how to complete the final problem chapter of my WIP. I had to Keep Calm and Start Again. Quite a few times. But it came to me yesterday and I'll outline the chapter this weekend.

Nas said...

Great advice and yes, some scenes sometimes do not work, so needs to be cut off.

Lydia Kang said...

I look like that cartoon when a scene isn't working. I tossing out huge passages of writing, but sometimes it must be done.

Angela Ackerman said...

I think a brand new scene works well, because sometimes it helps shed light on what was wrong with the old one. Often we get stuck on cutting a scene because there's something about it that really works. We don't want to let it go. Sometimes it can be fixed!

mooderino said...

@Stephen - it can be very annoying to come up with an alternative only to find it's still not right. Story of my life.

@Nas - thanks.

@Lydia - like ripping off a band aid, best to get it over with quick.

@Angela - sometimes it takes someone else looking at it and they spot the problem really easily.

Charmaine Clancy said...

It's hard to admit when something doesn't work. I always know myself, but pretend it's fine until the third person gives me a little nudge and sweetly whispers the word 'crap' in my ear. Then I have a routine. After the hissy fit, the crying, the denial, the blame and the begging, I rewrite. Then I'm always glad I did.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - that all sounds very familiar. And strangely, afterwards, hard to remember what all the fuss was about.

Ellie Garratt said...

I find it best to cut a scene if it's not working. I don't delete it, though. It gets moved into a separate 'maybe' file.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

The problem in this advice is soliciting the correct person to read the scene. Someone that stumbles across your work naturally and really digs the character is going to have an entirely different reaction than someone who is forced to read it because they are your friend.

mooderino said...

@Ellie - I save everything too. But usually it's the one thing I delete that turns out to be the thing I find the perfect place for.

@Michael - very true. Finding people to read it who like the genre and also have pertinent criticisms is tough.

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