How to Tell When a Scene Isn't Working

Oct 11, 2010

So, first off, I wanted to clarify something from the last post-- be sure to read I Am Not a Serial Killer before you read Mr. Monster. It's a series, and the first book is just as riveting as Mr. Monster!

Also on the last post, I got an interesting comment from Michelle. She asked how you know if you've made a scene better or worse when you're rewriting it. I've been pondering this all weekend.

With the scene I rewrote, I didn't necessarily make it worse. I just found another way to write it that didn't work. So the question, I think, is really about what makes a scene work or not work. This is going to sound vague and possibly useless, but for me, it starts with a feeling. Whether I'm first-drafting or rewriting, sometimes a scene just plain doesn't feel right.

Of course, there's usually a reason it doesn't feel right. With the scene I mentioned in the last post, after I looked at it, it didn't work for a lot of reasons. There was too much exposition and backstory. It took too long to get to the point. It started with a flashback that didn't flow smoothly into the rest of the scene.

There are other reasons I've found that my scenes don't work. I tossed one in the first draft because I had a character do something he'd never actually do. I have a whole section in the middle that I'm going to have to completely rewrite because nobody does anything but SIT AROUND and talk. (Snore!) And often, I first know these scenes won't work because they just don't feel right.

Sometimes, though, I don't get that feeling and the scene still doesn't work. That's what critique groups are for. And sometimes, I moan about how horrible a scene is, only to find it's actually pretty good. The key is to look at the scene analytically and find out WHY you think it doesn't work (or why you think it does).

So, my friends, after all that vagueness of "feelings" on my part, I want to hear your part. How can you tell if a scene isn't working in your writing?


Susan Spann said...

Great post!

Your "reach out with your feelings...use the Force" answer may not be as vague as you think. I can't tell you how many times I've been writing along and just had the feeling that the characters were all standing in my head, staring at me like a bunch of fifth graders that I'd just told we would be cleaning toilets for fun.

Another giveaway I've learned to recognize is that a bad scene gets harder and harder to write as it goes along. The words stop flying out and start feeling forced, and although I used to try and "write through it" now I tend to back it up to the place where things went wonky (saving progress somewhere else, just in case) and start off again in another direction.

Developing those feelings takes time, yes, but it's definitely worth it once you get there and realize you can tell when things are going wrong.

C. N. Nevets said...

I'm not sure I have any less nebulous an answer to give, but I'll try to distill a few things from my basic, "Um, it just doesn't work?" answer.

1. Inappropriate pace: it rushes to its conclusion too quickly or drags its feet getting to the end. A writer should always have a sense of what the pace of a scene should be. If you don't, you need to start there.

2. Non-sequitor: it either doesn't follow properly from its set up. or doesn't lead properly into the scene which follows it.

3. Who did what now? Every scene has some kind of (internal or external) action that advances the plot or contributes to character development. Those actions have to be performed by the appropriate characters, and it should make sense for those characters to do those things.

Those are some of the basics that jump out at me. Really, it's a smaller scale version of the same things you look at for a story as a whole.

mshatch said...

susan hit the proverbial nail on the head. You can tell it isn't working when ...well, it's not working! And the reverse is often true as well. You know it is working when it doesn't feel forced and that scene practically writes itself.

great post!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Like you, it starts with a feeling. Usually I'll find I've left out a detail or key element that helps it to make sense. Sometimes it's not logical. The big finale in my book required several rewrites just to get the technical logistics correct.

Margo Berendsen said...

On my own, the only way I can tell if it doesn't work is TIME. And I appear to take more time than most writers! If I come back and re-read some chapter six months after they've been written, I'm still in love. Yikes! Sometimes it takes over a year for me to be able to see the flaws clearly. So, I REALLY need a critique group to keep me on track and point out things like "this chapter is all talk and nothing happens"

Meredith said...

Ugh, I hate when a scene doesn't feel right. It's always difficult for me to figure out what exactly makes it wrong, but I can usually tell when it just won't work. Thanks for the advice!

Sandy said...

Great post!

Sometimes, it's very difficult to pinpoint why a scene doesn't work. Your awesome post and the comments are very, very helpful. :)

David P. King said...

"Feeling" is very much a part of the process. It's a gut and heart relationship. Every good writer should develop this with each word. For me, it's a matter of blocking or confusion. If I confuse readers, something's not working. Of course, I'm a "plan" writer - I develop the story before I actually start drafting it, like storyboards for animation projects. Even then, it's not a perfect system, but I try to write stories that I would enjoy while bearing in mind that I'm writing for someone else to read it.

Michelle said...

As the "asker" of the question, I really appreciate all the great feedback! You put words to my guesses, and have helped validate my writer's intuition that is still in its infancy. Thank you!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey, look, you changed your commenting format!

(That's all I have to say. I love reading about writing and publishing, but since I don't write anything longer than blog posts or emails these days, I can't say how I know whether a scene is working.)

(Oh, but also I am SO SO glad your sister saved A. from choking. Yikes!)

Bast said...

I'm not sure. I guess it's just a feeling.

I wrote a scene in my last book. I had work from a kinda outline, so I had this scene planned out in advance. But it was one of those things that worked when I was planning, but once I got to that part of the book, it was just obvious to me that the characters wouldn't do that. I still wrote it anyway cause I had planned for it.

When I sent the chapter to my friend, she echoed exactly what I had already thought ... the characters would never do that.

The scene just didn't seem right and it didn't flow naturally. It stood out because it was wrong.

I cut it. No rewriting, just cut.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's pure instinct. The writing doesn't feel right to me. I need to make additions or deletions. The crit group helps plenty, too.

Julie Musil said...

I try to listen to my gut. And if my gut is silent, then I listen to my critique group. Sometimes I'll have this nagging feeling, but I'll leave the scene the same. Then my crit group confirms my worry.

Unknown said...

I read it out loud and that helps me to decide.

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