My Scene isn’t Working!

You’ve honed your characters and written their bios and let their backstories consume your daydreams. The conflict is palpable. The plot is moving forward. But you’ve rewritten your scene to the point of wearing out your keyboard, and it still doesn’t work!

What might not work? Here are some possibilities: A character is out of character, for example old miser Don suddenly becomes a delightful counselor and a shoulder to lean on. That doesn’t work. Maybe the setting is wrong: you want a sunset on the beach but your story is set on the East Coast. Or your hero, who has a serious heart condition, is throwing things in a screaming rage, but his heart attack doesn’t come for another 100 pages.

If you keep honing that scene you’ll get an ever-more lovely description of a scene that doesn’t work. Poetic even! To make the scene work, you may need to try something entirely different.

If you’re writing in the first person, you have to view the scene through the narrator’s eyes, ears, nose, etc. This limits your options somewhat. But…give your character the stomach flu. Your poor, miserable narrator will certainly garble the scene, giving you some liberty to sneak in a necessary plot element that your narrator is too sick to understand. Or, instead of sitting in the narrator’s head during the difficulties, let the narrator sum things up afterwards. Or maybe your narrator isn’t even there; she hears about the blow-up via a friend. Or reads it in the newspaper. Or on a blog. The difficulty you had forcing the plot now becomes much simpler.

These days, writing in the third person omniscient voice isn’t used much. If you’re using it, you must describe things as they really were, plus your reader is expecting you to reveal every character’s thoughts. But, more commonly, the third person voice is a “close” third person, meaning you follow one character and generally reveal what he’s thinking without getting into the minds of the others too much. If this isn’t working for you, try switching into another character’s mind. Perhaps this new character gives you a better point of view to explain the scene. Or, let your character sum up the (unseen) meeting to a friend over dinner—this way you can add some errors in description because your character’s memory is fallible.

There are other possibilities. Is a key character defined improperly? I ran into this problem in the third Flying Broomstick book with Reggie Baker, a character who’s never seen because he died before the narrative starts. When I began writing he was a retired Oxford history professor. But…certain scenes cried for something different, so I made him an M.D. with a military background. This sharpened the narrative, so I went with the flow and rejiggered his backstory. End of problem.

Or, perhaps one of your characters should really be two characters? Perhaps instead of Don the Miser as the bank manager, you ought to let Don go live in a cabin in the woods and create Inholst Sheridan, a haughty dude with an affected English accent (even though you know him to be descended from Mayflower stock). Ooh…we have a delicious character here, proud to a fault, perhaps hiding his failed career as a New York securities lawyer. I can just see Sheridan creating all sorts of mayhem: Fraud? Usury? Theft? A suspiciously missing wife?

You might go the opposite way and combine two characters who ended up having the same worldview. Sure, one’s a Harvard graduate and the other’s a trash collector, but if they’re contributing about the same thing to the story, dump one and keep the other, who might now have only a community college degree and really can’t read all that well.

You could also change the setting. Let the electricity fail for a moment. There’s a bit of confusion, and when the lights come on only a few seconds later, one of your characters is clear across the room, notably closer to Countess Daviess’s purse. Or, if they’re on that beach enjoying the sunset, let it rain! Let the wind blow! Or, if you’re all gathered at the decedent’s home, perhaps someone rummaging in the fridge can uncover a handwritten will with no date.

Remember: If you keep trying the same things harder, you’ll get more of the same results. You’ve got to do something different. Perhaps some of these ideas will help.

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