When You're Really, Really Stuck on a Scene...

Yesterday, I started a scene, but it just wasn't engaging me, in spite of its worthy characters, interesting setting, and heartrending situation. The writing itself was pretty smooth, too, but I really didn't care.

Hmm, I thought, before ten other things distracted me. When I came back to it, I still couldn't figure out what the problem might be.

Finally, I gave up and decided to sleep on it. First thing this morning, I pulled it out and took another look.

And that's when it hit me. The scene, which was meant to show the passage of time and introduce a new character and changing situation, had zero tension. There was no conflict between the characters, no one was distracted from the oh-so-sincere conversation by a pressing personal conundrum, and nothing particularly exciting happened.

Worse yet, in this romantic suspense, I was writing a scene with neither romance or suspense.

Big problem, but one that's easily fixed, now that I've put my finger on the issue. And better yet, it reminded me of an important truth. Characters can be sharpened. Description can be rewritten, and prose can always be "prettied up" into something serviceable or better. But when you really, really can't get into a scene, ask yourself these questions:

1. What's really at stake here?
2. Why should we care if the character gets it?
3. What daunting obstacle is standing in his/her way?
4. Is this scene an integral part of the whole, or is it a throwaway or a bridge to get your reader to "the good stuff?"

If so, make some changes. You can't afford any do-nothing scenes in your story. Because no reader (or agent or editor) is going to take the trouble to cross a boring bridge.

Comments

That was my problem with my first draft of my book. I had so many scenes that were really just me discovering my story and not scenes any reader would have been interested in.

I do wonder if it's different somewhat in other genres. I'm thinking chic lit, for instance. There are a lot of scenes in those books where not that much is at stake, but we read on because of the humor and the voice of the character. Perhaps that's true of comedy in general?

I'm just so fascinated by what makes readers read on. One of my favorite books is The Mercy of Thin Air, by Ronlyn Domingue, and it's interesting to look at that book in light of what you just said.
Oh, and I'm really curious--what changes DID you make? Did you just cut the scene entirely, or did you find a way to fix it?
Katie said…
Woot! I knew I had a problem, I just couldn't figure out what it was. I was having the exact same feelings and now I know what to do. Thank you so much!!
Kathryn,
I've been out of town and couldn't get Blogger to play nice, so I lost my original response and will try again.

I know that sometimes amusing, evocative, or otherwise engaging scenes that don't really move the story forward do find their way into books. If the reader is sufficiently captivated, this creates a type of forward motion that can certainly work.

For the type of book I write, in particular, the scene must be crafted to do double or triple duty. Swift narrative movement is essential.

To revise my scene, I rewrote the beginning and had the protagonist make an emotionally-charged discovery. Before the reader could learn its nature, the new character walks in and the protag hides the item. That way, all the conversation that follows, though it remains essentially as it was, is charged with tension. What did the protagonist find that created such a visceral reaction? Why would he hide it? Will he get the newly-introduced character to leave quickly, as he wants, or will her personal agenda interfere?

The addition of that tension changed everything, but dramatic secrets aren't always needed. Only two characters with opposing goals/interests.

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