diagnosing scene problems

writers-block I wanted to write something clever and witty this morning, but clever and witty went out the door last night while I was working on my current work in progress. This is the big moment, you see, when I finally bring my protagonist together with one of my main characters.

The last two hundred pages of the manuscript have been building up to this chapter, so it can’t fall flat. I was so excited, because I already had worked the entire scene out in my mind, and I knew it was great. However, the scene I envisioned fell flat when I sat down to write it.

I’m not kidding . . . it was a snoozer. I was going to sleep writing it. You get the picture.

When this happens I diagnose the scene by evaluating what is not working. My problem with this scene is trying to stay too close to the original text (I’m currently working on the middle draft). What was completely apropos for the first draft did not encompass the character and physical location changes in the second draft.

While these changes in characterization and locations are minor and don’t affect the overall plot, these differences will have a lot do with how these two characters interact in this scene. Here is what Stephen King means when he advises “kill your darlings.”

The original scene I imagined has to go. I may get to keep portions of it, but it’s going to have to be re-written to reflect the current pacing of the novel. If I don’t do this, I run the risk of losing the momentum I’ve built to this point.

As I re-read the scene, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Is there enough detail in my setting?
  2. Are my characters’ interactions with events and one another realistic to their circumstances?
  3. How is my pacing? Is the scene moving too fast or too slow?
  4. Do I want this scene to move forward my plot or my characters’ stories?
  5. Does the scene successfully move either the plot or story forward? If not, what’s missing?
  6. Do I meander or fall into a tangent at any point?
  7. Does each paragraph segue smoothly into the next paragraph?
  8. Are my scenes conveying the proper level of emotion for the action?
  9. Is the backstory presented in a coherent manner or do I have the characters remembering events without a trigger?

Armed with my list of questions, I go back through the scene and pick out the problems. With this chapter, I can deduce the problems are related to pacing, characterization, and story. This scene is not about plot, but more about my protagonist’s emotional journey, so I will focus on story.

The first two are easy: the pacing is too slow and the characters are not interacting in a manner that is realistic to their circumstances. The third issue is harder to spot, but because I know my characters and what I need from this scene, I can easily see the problem.

This is where all the work of character sketches finally hits paydirt. This scene is about my protagonist and my main character’s emotional stories, so rather than days of writer’s block, I’ve hit a temporary snag. By doing my homework on my characters before I begin my novel, it’s easy for me locate where I have deviated from these characters’ emotional journeys in this scene. I’ve failed to carry their stories (or their emotional growth, if you will) forward to the next level. Now that I know what’s wrong, I can re-imagine the scene to carry the action and stories forward.

Another way to diagnose a scene is by bouncing the troublesome scene off two members of my critique group who are extremely helpful with their advice. Sometimes I simply can’t envision the forest for the trees, and when I’m blind to my own writing, I need outside eyes to see what I’m missing.

I’m going back in tonight and finish this chapter with a new scene that better reflects my protagonist and my main character. Wish me luck, but meanwhile I’d like to hear about how you diagnose the scene that isn’t working.

If you’re looking for articles, Andy Shackcloth presented an interesting article for a technique on Measuring the Pace In Writing you might want to visit, and Ken Levine has some advice for What To Do If You Get Stuck.


About T. Frohock

Please visit my web site at: www.tfrohock.com
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7 Responses to diagnosing scene problems

  1. Jonathan Danz says:

    Good Luck. Thanks for the insight into your process. I’ll be checking back on your list when I start my revisions.

    • Teresa says:

      My list may serve as a starting point, but I think you’ll probably come up with your own list, Jonathan. I think as we learn our weak spots in our writing, we develop an evaluative process to expedite a solution. My critique group has been invaluable in showing me where my writing is weak so I can trim a lot of the more routine problems before they ever see the chapter. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. lawrenceez says:

    Hope you sort the problem out, Teresa. Maybe you could sketch an outline of the chapter in pen before writing it down.

    btw – I’m due to face the novelist group in a few days time for feedback on the first six chapter of my current novel.

    • Teresa says:

      I believe I’ve got it now, Lawrence, it’s all starting to work now. It was just the problem of having to let go of a scene that I really liked.

      I’ll be watching your blog to see how the feedback with your novelist group goes! I hope you’ll let us know how it went.

  3. jenniferneri says:

    Glad to hear it’s going well now, Teresa. I like your approach.

    It happened with me not so long ago as well, and it had to do with how my character was perceived by those around her. It is important to keep our characters in clear view, and not loose sight of their motivations.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, Jennifer, I read your comment last night, and I realized that was part of my problem. I had lost my perspective on one of my characters. I went back and re-read the third chapter where she is introduced, and things really started to click for me. Thanks for the advice!

  4. jenniferneri says:

    wow – I am so happy to hear that!!!

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