Scene Revision: 4 common reasons why a scene doesn’t work

I spent the second half of last week revising chapter three in my WIP, a novella entitled “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic.” I needed to send that chapter off to my critique partners for our monthly meeting of the minds. The problem was that I wasn’t happy with that scene. The scene just didn’t work. I hate sending material off to someone else before I’ve fixed the obvious stuff, so I sat down and reread the scene a couple times. Eventually, I was able to identify a few key aspects of the scene and tinker with them. It’s still not perfect, but the revised scene works much better. (We’ll see what my crit partners have to say about that.)

I’ve noticed a pattern with scenes in early drafts. We become so caught up in getting the words on the page and meeting our word-count goals that sometimes we forget to slow down and really enter the scene. I’ve identified a few common reasons a scene doesn’t work. Do these ever happen to you?

Reason No. 1: The scene lacks clear turning points.

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photo by Denise D. Young

According to Donald Maass in “The Fire in Fiction,” every scene needs both an outer and an inner turning point:

“[Outer turning point:] The way in which things change that everyone can understand; [inner turning point:] the way in which the scene’s point-of-view character changes as a result.” (Maass)

In the scene I mentioned above, the characters in my story are on the run in the middle of the forest, far from civilization and far from help, at risk of both hypothermia and goblin attack. The conflict was clear, but the turning points needed some fine tuning. My scene had a clear outer turning point, which I won’t specifically mention here, but the inner turning point needed more work to be fully revealed.

We have to ask ourselves: What role does our scene play in the overall plot? Some external thing needs to happen that takes our character further from his/her goal and escalates the conflict, but something needs to happen inside him/her as well—a feeling, a fear, a realization must be unlocked.

Reason No. 2: The characters are behaving inconsistently.

This tends to happen to me a lot in early drafts, partly because I don’t know my characters very well yet. I’m still testing how they would react in a situation. Would they attempt to diffuse tension with humor? Would they be confrontational or would they withdraw?

This can also happen when I’m racing through a scene or trying to meet my word count. I become so focused on getting my characters somewhere else that I forget to slow down and live the scene through their eyes.

Are our characters under- or overreacting in ways that don’t fit into their personalities? If so, we need to step back and step into their shoes, dive down into their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and inner worlds. That often helps get the scene back on track.

Reason No. 3: The scene is stuck in transition.

In early drafts, we often write scenes that, while they’re necessary background for us as writers, don’t do much to thrill readers or add to the story. Or maybe we don’t know where to go next—or how to get there—so we end up watching our characters eat breakfast. Eating breakfast is boring—unless it’s immediately interrupted by a zombie attack or a fire-breathing dragon.

During the revision stage, we can often cut these scenes or merge them into the next scene or chapter. If you think the scene really does need to stay, return to reason No. 1 and try to uncover the scene’s true purpose in the overall story.

Reason No. 4: The writer is forcing the story to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go.

We have a well-laid out plan, so we write the next scene in our outline. Unfortunately, the story has since evolved, beyond our plan and away from our early outline. Stories often surprise us and, in the midst of writing, we realize that the scene we’re writing fits the story as we initially envisioned it, not as it currently exists.

In my current WIP, I began writing the next scene on my outline, only to realize that the events of that scene seemed like they belonged in a different story. As my world had evolved, that scene no longer belonged. By allowing myself to change course, I found the story flowed much more naturally.

Sunday ROW80 check-in

ROW80Logocopy1.) Finish a draft of “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic”: 2,700 to 3,000 words per week. Wrote 2,905 words this week. Most of that was earlier in the week, since I spent the second half revising.

2.) Read to hone my craft. Continued reading Julia Cameron’s “Walking in this World” and Donald Maass’ “The Fire in Fiction.”

3.) Blog at least two times a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays: Target met.

4.) Check in on Twitter daily and on WANA Tribe at least once/week: Met for Twitter, not WANA Tribe. (I have been really bad at that one.)

5.) Comment on 5-6 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday: Target met.

6.) Super-secret project: Write two articles/posts each week for that project: No progress to report this week.

How are your goals coming along this week? What common reasons do you find a scene you’ve written doesn’t quite work? How do you solve this problem?

A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80), founded by author Kait Nolan, is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow participants, or check out the #ROW80 hashtag on Twitter.

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14 thoughts on “Scene Revision: 4 common reasons why a scene doesn’t work

  1. Sounds like a good week. When a scene is getting hard to write, I’ve found that using the dication on the computer, saying it outloud and letting the computer type for me helps. My minds thinks quicker when I am talking. x

    • That’s a good idea. I should try it sometime. I’ve found I sometimes edit a lot when I’m typing–“No,” my inner critic chimes in, “that’s no good.”–and I end up editing a sentence or paragraph several times. Dictation could solve that problem.

      Thanks for stopping by, Laura! Have a wonderful week. 🙂

  2. I use my dragon speech software a lot – it does help a lot – I am a put words on paper merchant and edit out at end – fine tuning episodes need contemplation sometimes:) you had a good though, all the best for this:)

    • I’ve heard good things about Dragon’s dictation software. I try not to edit too much while I write, but I do send one chapter off to my crit partners every month, and I want that chapter to be as polished as possible so I can make the most out of their feedback. Thanks, Alberta!

    • Thanks, Raelyn! I’ve found Donald Maass’ book to be really helpful. I would definitely recommend it. He goes into greater depth on turning points and provides some great examples to back up his explanations.

    • My critique partners do the same thing for me. If I haven’t quite identified the aspects of a scene or chapter that aren’t working, they’ll flag any problem areas.

      Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!

  3. I tend to write through a whole draft before finding problems like this, but once I do, a scene that’s not working is often one I just need to toss, because it’s not bringing anything new to the story. Outlining (which I do) alleviates some of that, but sometimes superfluous scenes still sneak in. Sounds like you made great progress this week – keep up the good work!

    • Outlining definitely helps me identify the purpose of a scene and determine whether it needs to stay or go. I find my stories are more tightly written and I go on fewer authorial wild-goose chases now that I am using more of a plotter method (as opposed to full-out pantser).

      Thanks, Jennette.

    • Thanks, Sione. Editing other people’s work can make us better editors of our own work as well. I’ve learned a lot over the years from serving as a critique partner, beta reader, even a first-round judge in a writing contest. 🙂

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