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What to Do When Your Chapter Falls Flat and You Don’t Know Why

January 18, 2021

Have you ever been writing a scene or chapter and something felt wrong? In the moment, you couldn’t name a specific detail that needed to be added, removed, or changed. That’s because singling out a problem as you’re pouring ideas onto the page is almost impossible. But even after you finished, you were still dissatisfied.

 

The more you write, the more your ability to detect weaknesses grows. You’ve probably noticed flaws in published books and friends’ manuscripts without extending much effort. But when you sense that your current project isn’t working, how do you quickly bring the issue to the surface?

 

First, don’t panic and quit. You need a completed draft before you start worrying about revisions. Second, when misgivings creep up on you in the middle of a writing session, ask yourself three questions to help diagnose and (hopefully) remedy the trouble.

 

Question #1: Who Should Be Telling the Story?

Point of view not only connects the audience to a character’s personal stakes in a situation but also her development. Sometimes a scene, or even an entire book, is ineffective because of the narrator, and transferring that role to someone else can radically heighten engagement.

 

In episode 319 of the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast, K. M. Weiland discusses how she almost ruined her novel Storming. She began with a strong female protagonist named Jael, but she soon realized that putting readers inside this character’s head diminished the mystery surrounding her after she falls unexpectedly from the sky. When Weiland shifted the focus from Jael to Robert “Hitch” Hitchcock, the story came alive. Hitch’s perspective and character arc, contrasted with Jael’s, provided the most powerful emotional impact.

 

If you’re frustrated with your own work-in-progress, the wrong character might have the microphone. Determine who among your characters has the most to lose, who has the most potential for change, and whose worldview will interact best with your story’s theme. If you’re alternating between multiple POVs, you’ll need to decide who should be relaying each progressive piece of the story. You’ll mess up at times, but you can always scrap a scene and try again from a different perspective. 

 

Question #2: Are You Listening to Your Characters?

When a writer has a vision for how she wants a scene to play out, the temptation to force a certain outcome or reaction is often too strong to resist. But realism goes awry when characters act outside of their nature.

 

I once wrote more than 2,000 words about two of my favorite characters renewing their wedding vows. It was a beautiful, romantic, and funny scene. Since the couple got married in a courthouse, I was giving the wife a chance to experience walking down the aisle. But I created a lie. I’d established the male lead’s viciously practical tendencies earlier in the book. He would never renew his vows, nor would his wife ever expect him to, and that spoiled the sweetness.

 

If you’re having doubts about a scene, evaluate your characters’ behavior. Does it align with their personalities, or have you plastered your own preferences onto them? Characters mimic human traits, which means that their thoughts and actions will follow a pattern, and if you deviate from it, you’ll confuse readers.

 

Question #3: Does the Pace Match What’s Happening?

Pacing can make or break a story. But, as with characters, it can be challenging to fine-tune when your imagination begs you to explore an intriguing setting, spill a character’s backstory, or rush on to an exciting plot point.

 

You can curtail these distractions if you keep two factors in mind. First, every scene must matter. Any incident that doesn’t advance the plot, characters, or theme needs to be cut. Otherwise you risk losing momentum. Second, every decision leads to actions and reactions, then the sequence repeats. Your characters (and readers) need an appropriate amount of time to process and respond to events. If you linger on inconsequential ones, you’ll bore readers, and if you hurry through important ones, you’ll destroy the opportunity for meaningful reflections.

 

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen dwells on the aftermath of Mr. Darcy’s sudden and unwelcome proposal, as she ought. The derision between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth reveals their key failings, even though the full revelations don’t emerge for several more chapters. If Austen had instead moved on to the next entertaining bit, readers’ impression of the characters would have been much shallower.   

 

If you’re struggling with a scene, consider what’s occurred (action), how the characters cope with it (reaction), and what they’ll do next (decision). Each of these can drive an entire scene. A moment that can’t be described as an action, reaction, or decision might call for deletion. Don’t be afraid to see how your story looks without it.

 

Take a Deep Breath and Keep Going

Writing while you’re aware that something’s off can be frustrating. Maybe today nothing is coming out like you’d hoped, and you’re discouraged. But a faulty scene can eventually guide you toward the perfect one.

 

Allow yourself to make mistakes that push you to craft the best story you can. Sometimes I walk away from my desk knowing that every paragraph I typed was a flop, but after five years of consistent writing, I’ve learned that I can fix it. You can too.

8 Comments

  1. Nate P

    Great article Rose! This is something that will definitely become useful as I get back into writing.

    Speaking of trying to get back into writing, any tips on what to do when you’re drafting, and you literally hate everything you’re writing because nothing is coming out right? I know the point is to get the ideas on paper first, but since I never really drafted before (used to agonize about the right way to structure points, plots, and sentences from the start) it’s extremely discouraging and frustrating.

    The scene I’m in is right after the introductory scene. Protagonist wakes up from comatose state after battle, and I’m trying to introduce concepts of the story and worldbuilding in the first conversation he has with his best friend. But it is honestly the most robotic, frustrating awkward dialog I’ve ever written.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Nate. First, thanks for reading. Second, I’ll try to answer your question as best I can. What’s your primary goal of the scenes that aren’t working? If the primary goal is worldbuilding then I might try cutting that out until later. (worldbuilding can be added after a first draft.) Ask yourself what your MC wants the most right after waking up from his coma. That desire, even if it’s not the point of your entire story, will drive his conversation. I can’t say much more because I don’t know much about your story, but I know the feeling of NOTHING working, especially that first chapter. My other two suggestions would be to write a bad first chapter and let it go or to skip the first chapter entirely. First chapters rarely come out right on your first try.

      As a side suggestion, try saying your dialogue out loud. Try variations of responses. Act it out. Dialogue is super hard to get right. Don’t despair. Every word written is practice.

    • Nate P

      So the basic concept of the story is a bit meta (I think that’sthe right term). It’s a fantasy story, but the story takes place in a book..? The characters know they are book characters, and they each have roles to play that they are assigned at the beginning of the book. Sorta like Wreck it Ralph “book style”. So I’m trying to help the reader understand what’s going on and how the world works without yelling at the reader “THEY ARE IN A BOOK!!!” The comatose state is because the protagonist just finished a book where he died in the end, and he just “reset”.

  2. Joelle Stone

    Very helpful, thx Mrs. Sheffler! 😀

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      You can call me “Rose.” And you’re welcome.

    • Joelle Stone

      Mrs. Sheffler *cough cough* Rose, sounds good! It is so weird using a first name with an adult. XD

  3. Rachel L.

    Thanks so much! Needed this as I content edit my latest project.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Rachel, you are so welcome! Good luck editing!

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