Monday 8 September 2014

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...
If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.

This post first appeared in November 2012. Summer's over so there will be a new post next week (assuming I can think of something to write about).


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No, a summary of a scene that doesn't work isn't any better!
You just have to find that nugget of importance and build something better around it.

Sarah Allen said...

I'm actually in this exact position with my current novel. Thank you so much for this advice! Very helpful.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Catherine Stine said...

When this happens to me, I tend to go back to free-writes or outlining. It's often a structural issue, which can be resolved by fixing the outline. It happens. I used to panic, but now I just set my mind to figuring out the problems!

Elise Fallson said...

Letting go. I've been thinking a lot about this because sometimes it's not the scene that doesn't work, it's the whole damn story.... Why do I do this to myself? *le sigh* I've missed your posts Moody, but I should be around more regularly now. I'm sure you're thrilled. :P

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a great post, and I'm retweeting it. Great insights all the way through.

Unknown said...

Sounds frustrating to keep going back. I hate it when it happens on a photography shoot. It can take me hour or even days to fix one small mistake only to find out I have more. It is the hard work that makes the final result all the more worth it.

Chemist Ken said...

Nothing worse than trying to go back and fix a scene that's so entrenched in your head you just can't think of any other way to present it. However, nothing's better than the feeling you get when you have that "Eureka" moment and you suddenly know how the scene should have gone.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Good post. It's difficult to kill a scene. I know because I've had to do it many a time, but it usually is for the better.

mooderino said...

@Alex - it's always tempting to look for a quick fix, but it's rarely that easy (sadly).

@Sarah - yvw.

@Catherine - not panicking is always a good first step (or in my case, second step).

@Elise - I am very thrilled (but then you can't see what I'm doing).

@Elizabeth - thank you.

@Lilith - I think all art requires meticulous attention, it's just that sometimes our subconscious takes care of it without telling us (inspiration!).

@Ken - true and true.

@Mike - it's always agony before you do it and surprisingly relieving once you do.

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