When good scenes go bad

When good scenes go bad

If you write any kind of story, you’ve probably had the experience of getting halfway through a scene, everything cruising along just fine, and then– WHAM! hitting a wall.

What the heck?

I had this exact experience recently and banged my head against that particular wall for more writing days than I care to think about. I tried to power through it. I meditated on it. I slept on it. I went off and wrote something else, then came back. Still no joy.

But all the while, a suspicion crept up on me: Was the scene actually needed? Or was I trying to write something that wasn’t of any use to the story at all?

That got me thinking about how and why we get stuck in a scene. See if any of these reasons resonate in your Writer’s Brain™:

Necessary

When I got stuck halfway through a conversation between two beloved characters, I started looking at what was actually being conveyed — and realized that while all sorts of deep emotional truths were coming forth, that’s not actually what needed to be happening at that moment. So I’ve saved the problem bits and will see if they actually fit better at a later point.

 

Sometimes we pick the wrong secondary character for our protagonist to interact with. In my case, I had planned a couple of scenes of Evelyn where Evie had a chance for some serious character growth, only to discover while writing them that they fell flat. The issue was that those scenes were with a guy who I’d originally pegged as her love interest, but whom I found out later was just a good buddy. So of course there was little tension in those scenes. But the moment I rewrote them with her love interest instead, they took off.

 

right POV

Figure out which character has the most at stake in the scene. If that character isn’t your POV character for that particular scene, try writing it from their POV and see if that unsticks you. If the scene is written from the point of view of the character with the most at stake, or if you’re writing a single-POV story, move on to…

 

right plot thread

Sometimes a scene appears to be working because it’s dealing with one of the protagonist’s issues, but not the primary issue. In my case, poor Evie has more than one iron in the fire — she’s faced with an ethical issue but also fretting about her marital status (set in the 1950’s, folks, so please hold onto your torches and pitchforks) — and it’s easy to veer off what the story is actually about, which is an ethical question playing up against the mores and expectations of the time. The romance is nice, but it takes a back seat in this novella.

 

goal or conflict

Charming but aimless drivel is what I end up writing if there’s nothing to be lost or gained in a scene. The scene doesn’t have to have high drama or life-and-death stakes, but it should have enough umph for the reader to sense the story is moving forward. And if your critique partners can’t figure out why you wrote the scene or how it advances the plot, chances are you don’t know, either.

 

sledgehammer

These are just some places to start diagnosing the block. Sometimes, just backing off the scene for a while, taking a walk, or having a writing partner read it aloud to you can generate an Aha! moment that helps you identify what might be off-track.

What’s one of your head-banging moments? And how did you break through?

(And, Happy July 4th to all our American friends!)

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

9 thoughts on “When good scenes go bad

  1. What a great follow up blog to why my story was falling flat last week. Scenes are the building blocks of story, and boy oh boy, when they work, you have a fast paced, thrilling ride – even if there are not life and death stakes. Even if it is an ethical conundrum. Or marriage questions, set in the 1950’s. (My torch is extinguished and my pitchfork – well, I never had one of those – I’m a city gal, after all. Hee hee.) Anyway, my point was that a scene that is working fills our readers brains with all kinds of information and then deviously ends at page turning moment. “Aaaah, what the hell is Evie going to do now? To hell with it being 2am. Forget that I have an early morning staff meeting, and that my alarm is set to go off in four hours. I simply MUST know!”

    1. A great point about ending on a page-turning moment!

      That power can come from introducing something unexpected to the narrative, or a character’s changed resolution to act, or even an emotional realization that subtly affects the story goal or creates more conflict. But in each case, that ending is a promise of something new and exciting on the horizon.

      And as David Mamet says, cutting on the action also helps. 🙂

  2. I remember one time (out of way too many) I had a scene that I couldn’t get through. I struggled with that puppy for Days. And finally, my hero informed me (sorta– you know how it is) that while he might do what I needed him to do in the first part of the scene, he would feel really bad about it later and cuss and stuff. Until we worked out the later part of the scene, I couldn’t write much of the first part.

    I tend to write a LOT of those chit-chat type of scenes, too. Unfortunately I can write that stuff all day without blinking. Heck, all Week! The good thing is that I am not afraid to break out the editorial machete and clean out the overgrowth…

    1. That’s a great point, Gail — sometimes it helps to back off and view the scene from 30,000 feet to see the overall flow and structure of it. And that can take a bit of patience as we wait for the story to reveal itself to us.

      I’m usually surprised by each scene’s ending. Sometimes the protagonist says or does something unexpected, or suddenly (as happened for me recently) a secondary character comes out with a revelation that adds depth and texture to the story — and creates more angst for the protagonist.

      It’s an interesting ride, this writing gig.

  3. I’ve managed to bang head first into that wall more times than I can count! One of the lessons I’ve learned about my process is that it means I took the story in the wrong direction. Since I write very seat-of-the-pants, learning the story as the characters reveal it to me – hitting a wall means I veered off the path of where the story is really headed. I’ve had to go back and delete scenes and sometimes chapters to get back on track. As soon as get back to the point where I left the yellow-brick-road, The Girls are very happy to show me where it should have gone, and I’m off and writing again.

    1. Yes, exactly!

      I admire your patience with your process, Terri. I know it sometimes feels like we’re writing in circles or churning away to little avail, but I’m also convinced that even those moments are opportunities to discover something new. Just as you always do!

  4. “Charming but aimless drivel” This perfectly sums up way more of my writing than I’m comfortable admitting. My “wall of happiness” as I call it. Bad thing is, these scenes practically write themselves for me. (That should be my first clue that I’m off track!)

    While waxing on about puppies and rainbows and cotton candy, I feel like I’m really kicking story-butt, only to sit back and review my work and realize I haven’t progressed my plot one iota — in fact, oftentimes, I’ve moved things backwards!

    Guess for me, if it ain’t hard, it ain’t gonna make the final cut.

    Ouch! Why in the world do I voluntarily do this to myself?

    1. I vote we’re all allowed to write The Wall of Happiness™ from time to time just to get it out of our systems — as long as we go back with the ole sledgehammer and knock it down!

      (I love your Walls of Happiness, Dawn, even if I also know they have to go… :))

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