Writing a scene that works

I have been working on a number of scenes in The Head Factory, mulling them over in my mind as I write. But something just wasn’t making sense with one of the scenes — where it fitted into the overall work and the way the scene was structured felt wrong.

I wanted to bring one of my viewpoint characters in on the action, having focused on the main protagonist for a number of chapters. So, I set out writing a scene showing this character waiting to hear from the main protagonist and getting increasingly uneasy about not knowing what was happening. I had left the main protagonist in a tricky predicament with seemingly nowhere to go, and wanted to build some tension and conflict outside of that sticky situation.

The scene seemed to drain me as I wrote it. Nothing seemed to slot into place and what seemed like a great idea for a scene ground to a halt.

One thing I have learnt is that sometimes you need to stop and rethink what you are working on if you want to make a bad scene into a great scene.

What makes a great scene?

There is a rule about what any one scene should achieve to justify its place in the manuscript.

  1. It should develop character, offering a further insight into who they are and what their motivations might be.
  2. It should develop the plot and the characters through change. Something should happen which drives the story forward, and also ideally offers the reader an insight into the character by showing their reaction to this plot development. Or it should let the reader see something the main characters are unaware of (leading to reader anticipation as to how characters might react).
  3. It should also attempt to develop conflict, tension, or frustration – the driving force behind any good story.

If a scene doesn’t achieve any or all of these fundamental objectives, then it has no place in the book and should be scrapped. If it doesn’t get discarded during the initial writing phase, then it should be removed during one of the revision phases.

Still not working out?

However, sometimes a scene might possess one or all of the criteria mentioned above, but it still isn’t working. A slight rework might be all that is needed to make that flagging scene more effective and earn its right to feature in the final book.

It might be that the scene isn’t told from the most appropriate perspective — maybe a switch of viewpoint character might resolve this. Or perhaps the scene is trying to do too much too quickly – the pacing might be offbeat for the book structure as a whole or within the scene. A book has an overall pace which should build gradually in a layered way using the above three criteria in each and every scene. And a scene itself of course has an overall structure and pace. A slight change might be all that is needed.

Be your own critic

One easy way to spot a scene which is floundering (at least for me) is if you find yourself writing far too much exposition — telling the reader what is happening rather than showing what is happening through drama and action.

For my scene, I cut a lot of extraneous detail from the scene and moved it back a chapter. I still managed to show the important part — the character’s frustration — and outlined where to put some of the other background information about him later in the book (in a scene involving other characters who were able to offer insight into his past).

Sometimes therefore it makes sense to stop and be your own critic, think carefully how a rewrite might help the scene, or simply discard it entirely if it doesn’t deserve to be in the manuscript at all.

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