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How to Fix 3 Terrible Scenes

April 22, 2021

Have you ever written a scene that you’re just not satisfied with, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with it?

 

Perhaps the pacing inches along at the speed of a crippled snail, or the theme feels as shallow as a puddle beside the ocean. Chances are, the issue isn’t choppy prose, bland dialogue, or bad grammar (though those are all substantial problems). Scene troubles usually originate inside the heart of the moment, underneath the skin and bones of what’s going on.

 

To find a solution, you’ll need to delve into the depths of your characters and remember their goals. That sounds fairly simple, but a boring or unnatural scene can appear in three common forms that each require different kinds of revisions.

 

The Slow, Purposeless, or Dry Scene

In purposeless scenes, nothing’s happening. You don’t have a confrontation that needs to occur, so characters stand around discussing banal topics, such as their uncle who lives next to a bunch of ancient monks.

 

You need to get the scene moving, or else readers will zone out. The best way to kick-start the action is to give your protagonist a goal. People always need to accomplish something, whether it’s convincing a sister to stop borrowing clothes without asking or rescuing their fiancée from a crime boss. Important side characters need targets to hit too, or they’ll become pushovers who don’t care about the plot. Without goals, they’re disposable.

 

The work doesn’t stop with assigning your protagonist a goal, however. Without stakes, scenes lack tension and emotion. A character must always have something to lose. The tension could spring from anything and everything. A situation as simple as a character attempting to impress his interviewer at a job fair can be interesting, as long as it’s significant to him and he has the potential to fail.

 

The Mechanical or Informational Scene

You’re typing away, minding your own business, when suddenly you reach a scene that carries as much meaning as the rusty gears in a tractor. It doesn’t engage you, and you doubt it will pull readers in either.

 

Scenes become mechanical when writers concentrate on throwing information at readers. Characters end up reciting lines about a mountain stream that feeds the wood nymphs who bring healing flowers to the ancient monks living in the tower of wisdom, which neighbors the uncle’s farm. Or worse, a character’s internal monologue randomly turns to these topics with no urging from his surroundings.

 

Info dumps aren’t the only pitfall. In order to expose the protagonist’s beliefs and how he changes over the course of the story, writers make other characters challenge his understanding of the world. In and of itself, this is fantastic. Side characters are supposed to reveal your protagonist’s beliefs. But sometimes writers put words in side characters’ mouths that don’t jibe with their personalities. Impromptu worldview arguments come across as preachy and can shrivel up a scene faster than a melodramatic death.

 

To infuse your scene with life again, return to who your characters are and what they want. If the protagonist’s scene goal is to steal an apple from the nearby baker, don’t insert monologue about a passing dragon species. He’s focused on filling his howling stomach. His thoughts and the details he notices must revolve around that. When the baker strives to protect his apples, don’t have him yank the kid aside and lecture him on theft and how life is about more than survival. Handing the street boy over to a guard for punishment will be considerably more effective at communicating the message.

 

Now, if the orphan grabs the apple and runs into a dragon during his escape, then you can add some chopped-up bits of info. If that dragon species can demonstrate the trait readers must learn in its encounter with the boy, even better. And if the baker is a super philosophical person who cares for orphans, then yes, let him give the boy a pep talk.

 

A character’s every word, decision, and action should stem from the sum of past events, logic, and values that have shaped him. His response to the stimuli around him must be completely him. If you break that rule by forcing a character to blurt stuff that he normally wouldn’t, readers will know. It kills a character’s realness, which leads to the loss of belief.

 

And that leads to a not-so-awesome book.

 

The Wrong POV Scene

At this point, you’ve assigned your protagonist a goal and removed artificial interactions and info dumps.

 

Yet the scene still falls flat.

 

Perhaps you’re dealing with two possible POV characters, the love interest and the protagonist. The protagonist is in the middle of wrangling one of the wood nymphs that serves the monks. Would the scene be more compelling if shared from the love interest’s perspective or his?

 

The love interest is a bystander. The protagonist is in the thick of the action. When a scene flops even after you’ve added goals, sometimes it’s because the POV character has little at risk compared to another character. Convert the scene to a more relevant POV, and you’re all set!

 

The Final Take

Now, examine those scenes that don’t feel quite right. Dig to the core of your characters, and infuse scenes with their desires. In this way, you’ll weave purpose into every situation and conversation. Once your scenes flow with meaning, you’ll be on track to craft an impactful novel.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 7, 2018. Updated April 22, 2021.

10 Comments

  1. Ariel Ashira

    This was so helpful, Gabrielle! Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Parker Hankins

    Yes, very helpful. I have written scenes that have fallen into the horrible category and have had to throw them away or rewrite them.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      I’m glad it helped you! Yup, some scenes like that aren’t necessary and can be cut altogether. 🙂

  3. Ingrid

    You make some very helpful (and hilarious) points! Thanks for this. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Grace Johnson

    Good point about always giving your character a goal. Even if it’s a small goal of small-scale importance (loved your example of convincing a sister to stop borrowing clothes), it still gives the audience a reason to finish reading that scene.

    Great article altogether! Thanks for sharing! 😀

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Yes! Goals are so important. (XD)

      Thanks for your comment! 😀

  5. Coralie

    AH! This is so well-timed! I am currently dealing with this issue in my entry for the short story contest. Something is just…off. I’m not sure what, but it’s made me about ready to pull my hair out and throw my hands up. I thought about just scratching it all and starting over, but I’m the kind of person who likes to know what is wrong before I attempt to fix it. That said, I am definitely going to give it another looksie with these points in mind. I know who my characters are. I really know what world they’re in. And I sorta kinda know what I want them to do. But the two scenes I’ve written just feel…wrong, somehow. (I’m currently leaning toward your first point as a possibility.) So thank you so much for your article! Hopefully I can rediscover the purpose in the opening to my story!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      I’m glad this came at a good time. I hope you figure it out! 🙂

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