Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, it’s only when you actually start writing that the problems begin. The ideas are all in place, you know your plot points and characters like the back of your hand, but then your pencil hovers over the page (or your fingers over the keyboard) and you realize that the scene just won’t come.
Maybe you power through, but even after the immense effort of getting your ideas down on the page, the scene doesn’t feel right. The pacing is stodgy, the characters fail to sparkle, and you doubt whether the reader is going to understand what you were trying to say.
So, what’s next? Well, there are a lot of answers to that question. You could give up, of course, but since you’re made of sterner stuff than that, what you really need is an emergency toolkit for frustrating scenes. Five techniques to help you whip your scene into shape, perhaps? I hope so, since that’s what we’ll be covering in today’s article.
1. Switch up the big three
The first piece of advice most people will give you when you’re struggling with a difficult scene is to vary the three ingredients of perspective: tense, person, and point of view. In isolation, this is great advice, since adjusting these core aspects of how a scene is witnessed and reported is an effective way to troubleshoot the issues you’re having in your writing. You’ll discover easy workarounds to a scene’s flaws that weren’t obvious with your previous configuration, discern strengths that were buried by your prior assumptions, and make choices that you didn’t know were on the table until now.
The problem is, most authors never follow this advice – in fact, they’ll quit in frustration before they do. Most of us have a default writing style – we feel odd writing in anything but the past tense, or we can’t image being tied to first-person narration for a whole story – and so when it comes to switching up our usual choices, we already know that even if we find a solution, it’s not one we’ll be able to use; even if writing in the present tense fixes this scene, we know we won’t actually adopt it for the rest of the book.
This is understandable in theory, but switching up tense, person, and point of view isn’t about finding a new way to write. More often, it’s just a case of gaining a new angle; the mechanic doesn’t want to see the underside of your car because they’re going to try and drive it from down there, but because it gives them a unique view of what’s going wrong.
Different tenses and persons have different strengths and weaknesses, but the idea is to use these to examine, rather than transform, your scene. For example, first-person writing requires the narrator to ‘be’ a character. Combined with the present tense, this usually creates a situation where a character is describing events as they happen. Apply this perspective to your previously third-person, past-tense scene and certain faults will become immediately clear. The moment where your character reacts a little too quickly to a strange circumstance – a subtle issue in the third person – will be far clearer once you’re in the character’s head, realizing that there’s no internal monologue that can justify their behavior.
This can work in a hundred different ways, and with the knowledge you gain, you can return to your favored style of writing with fresh understanding. Still, most authors won’t do this.
Why? Because it’s a lot of work for a section of writing that you’re not actually going to use. Can’t you just imagine doing it and reason from there? Well, it doesn’t quite work like that, but if I thought the only answer was forcing yourself through this potentially grueling process, I wouldn’t have brought four more techniques.
If you’re the type of writer who’s prepared to write their first version of chapter 8, then a new version from a different perspective, then a new version with fresh insight, you’ll be ahead of the pack in terms of solving problem scenes. If not, it really is worth a try, but it’s not the only thing that works.
Before we move on, it’s worth discussing point of view a little apart from tense and person. Point of view deals with the guiding character in a scene. This is the person who focuses, or is the focus of, the reader’s attention – the character who is speaking in first-person writing or the character whose experience is being described in third-person writing. While tense and person tend to form part of our natural writing style, point of view is always changing, and if you’re not willing to play with the other component parts of style, experimenting with point of view might still be for you.
Even if you’d usually stick with one character, readers will accept a minor jaunt elsewhere as part of an aside or artistic flourish. Richard Stark’s Parker books tend to have a mid-section where the story is relayed through multiple minor characters, allowing him the change of perspective to address anything his protagonist’s experience has left hanging; J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, frequently finds magical reasons for the main characters to witness things via someone else; and plenty of authors either have asides (as in Irvine Welsh’s Filth) or prologues (most high fantasy paperbacks and half of the classic murder mysteries) in which they explore the experience of a minor character outside of their otherwise constant protagonist.
In this spirit, tinkering with your point of view character is a good diagnostic approach to a difficult scene, and it can also produce sections that you can directly use in your book.
But if you are willing to play around with your focus character, how do you do it? Should you just write a version according to every character present and pick the best? Well, not exactly…
2. Follow the character with the most to learn
This advice comes courtesy of James Patterson’s MasterClass lecture, in which he makes the brilliant observation that the most interesting person to follow in a scene is usually the character who is going to learn the most within it.
So, you’re meant to follow the dumbest person present? Not quite. When Patterson says a character has the most to learn, he means that their current beliefs are going to undergo the most dramatic transformation.
Consider a scene with three potential point of view characters: a burglar who has just broken into a museum to steal a priceless diamond, a security guard who is doing their rounds, and a serial killer who just dumped their latest victim in the museum’s dinosaur exhibit and is watching from afar with binoculars.
Let’s say that you already wrote this scene from the point of view of the serial killer (either from their direct perspective or with them as the focus) but it’s not working. This isn’t surprising, because of all the characters present, they actually have the least to learn; they know the body’s there, and while the presence of the guard or the burglar might be surprising, they’re not really relevant. Even the potential conflict of the guard and burglar meeting is no revelation, since the killer will see both their movements minutes in advance.
Next, let’s try the burglar. For this character, the body is going to be a real revelation, but the guard won’t really be that surprising. Their presence is to be expected, and they’re someone you’d expect to be present in the normal course of events. The burglar is likely to be a more interesting focus than the killer because their journey from illicit activity to the shock of a body is a bigger change, but they’re still not our most dramatic focus.
The guard, on the other hand, is going to go through a lot before this scene is over. Not only are they about to stumble across a burglar, someone they don’t expect to see, but that’s going to be followed by the presence of a body and, perhaps, the revelation that the burglar swears the two aren’t connected. This scene is packed with revelations for the guard; they’re going to learn so much between their entrance and their exit, and that means, all things being equal, they’re probably the most interesting point of view from which to witness this scene unfold.
Again, the ideal approach is to rewrite your scene from the perspective of the person with the most to learn, but if you’re not going to do that, then do at least consider your current scene from this perspective. What miniature journey does your focal character go through during this scene? How is this journey paced, or if it doesn’t really exist, how can you emphasize or create it? Remember that a scene is still a story; things need to happen, conflict needs to occur, and something has to change. There are two ways to relate a scene through the character with the most to learn; leave your protagonist behind to inhabit the character who is going to change or make your protagonist the person who is going to change. If, for example, you need to keep focus on your serial killer character in that museum scene, then don’t have them watching from afar – throw them in the museum and find ways to make their experience even more transformative than that of the other characters.
3. Introduce the worst possible complication
Another way to find the best form of your scene is to throw a grenade into it and see what survives. By this, I mean that you write the most deliberately volatile version of your scene and see where it takes you. Again, you don’t have to be bound by the result, you’re mainly adopting a new perspective to assess what’s going wrong, but if you like what you get, feel free to keep it.
Remember, though, that you’re throwing a grenade, not popping a paper bag. By that, I mean that it’s far less useful to simply make the scene a little more dramatic. The idea isn’t just to shake things loose, it’s to identify what’s easy about this scene and deliberately go in the other direction – you’re both adding excitement and removing predictably, and each is as important as the other.
This is a technique Rian Johnson utilizes in his work; identifying the boring or cliché next step and then veering away from it, telling a more interesting story at the same time as subverting the reader’s expectations.
But the bigger thing was, if you look at for example, the Vader “I am your Father” moment from Empire [Strikes Back], I think that moment’s so powerful because it’s the hardest possible thing that Luke and the audience could hear at that moment. It takes away the easy answers basically. We thought he was just a bad guy that we could hate and want to kill, but that one sentence and suddenly it’s more complicated than that. It’s harder than that.– Rian Johnson in Peter Sciretta’s ‘Rian Johnson ‘Last Jedi’ Spoiler-Filled Interview’, SlashFilm
This technique can feel counter-intuitive – it can be scary to deliberately throw something more complicated at the reader – but it will require you to stretch a little and, by doing so, to redefine your relationship to this problem scene.
Of course, this type of rewriting has a similar flaw to playing with perspective; some writers just aren’t going to write a bunch of ‘fake’ versions of their scene on the off chance that they learn something useful. For our toolbox to be worth having, then, we need to take that initial version and do something big that we intend to keep.
4. Delete the first page
This technique isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s dynamite for turning problem scenes into amazing moments. The idea here is twofold – first, to cut the part of the scene where you’re most likely to have lost momentum, and second, to give yourself a whole bevy of challenges going forwards.
Most writers over-explain, and most writers really over-explain when a scene is giving them trouble, since they’re desperate to dump all the boring scene setting and get to the action. Deleting your first page severs the chains tying you to all those decisions, and it also drops the reader right into the action. You can, of course, go back later and add in a new beginning, but I’d actually advise that you not. Instead, try to weave what you’ve lost back into the story at key points. You’ll find that this clarifies what the reader actually needs to know and what just felt like it should be said at the start of the story. It also prioritizes the good stuff; now, the boring setting-up details have to fit around the more engaging events that the scene is actually here to provide.
Deleting the first page, as opposed to a first paragraph or set number of words, may seem arbitrary, but this is part of the point. The deletion is a challenge to your creative mind, turning the scene into a game rather than a slog. You might lose something you really need or like, in which case, congratulations; you just found out which parts you actually need or like.
Deleting the first page and then trying to adapt the scene is an adrenaline shot that instantly brings your priorities into focus. It may sound drastic, but try it once. One of the big secrets of editing is that everything would be better if it was just a little shorter, a little more dedicated to eschewing what doesn’t matter, so even if you don’t end up cutting the whole page, you’ll still be losing something you don’t need.
5. Set a goal for every page
This final technique is a dumb way of achieving smart results; when it comes to scenes that are boring or frustrating to write, the answer is often in the pacing. You want to say so many things at once or you want something to happen without knowing quite how, and it feels impossible for everything to hang together in a satisfying way. How do you get to your desired conclusion without it feeling rushed, and how do you reveal A, B and C while ensuring the reader cares about them all?
Well, you can begin by giving each page a goal. Take your current version, or your plan, or a blank piece of paper and write at the bottom what you want to achieve on that page. Every page needs a goal, and that goal needs to be something that you care about; exciting, necessary, or ideally both. If you can’t think of a goal, then either create one or find a way to accomplish your overall goal during another scene, since it doesn’t seem able to support one on its own.
By ‘goal,’ I mean something that makes that page worth reading. A concept is shared, a character is heard from, a plot point is progressed. If you’re working toward the one big idea, it’s no longer enough to spool the scene out so it doesn’t feel like it happens too quickly; you need something significant for each of those pages. If you’re sharing a lot of things at once, then the page goal has precedence and, once that page is over, the next goal is the one you need to fulfil. For example, let’s say that you need the group to agree to go to Location. That’s all you want, but it’s a big decision, so you know you need a scene in which the characters discuss it. Currently, they all agree to go on the fifth page of this scene, and the preceding pages are all exposition and bickering. Instead:
Page 1: Character A suggests going to Location,
Page 2: Character B objects, giving reason,
Page 3: Character C confronts Character B via personal attack,
Page 4: Character A ends the confrontation, showing leadership qualities,
Page 5: The group all agree to go to Location.
The end result won’t be perfect, it’s potentially odd that each of these events will take roughly the same ‘block’ of time, but it does have the basics of a compelling structure. Character B no longer snipes on and on for pages at a time, and there’ll be no moments where the conflict naturally fizzles but then has to flare because it isn’t yet time for everyone to agree. You have a scene in which specific things happen, and you know your next step; adjusting the space between them so the scene reads better. Having established a clear series of events, you’re left working on how to improve an existing scene rather than how to assemble the perfect scene from scratch. Ten times out of ten, that’s the better option.
If this approach feels formulaic, then try to remember that the thing about formulas is that they’re easy to deviate from. The worst that can happen is that you’re left with a clearer idea of what needs to happen and when. The best that can happen is that you suddenly see exactly what this scene wants to be.
Finding your scene
The artistic instincts that make you a writer are even better at recognizing what works than they are at creating something brilliant on the first try. This is why editors talk about ‘finding’ a scene rather than just creating it; the more you experiment, the more great ideas you’ll have that will feel like they were just waiting for your attention. That’s why deleting your first page or opting for a new perspective works – on an intuitive level, you’re able to identify what’s missing that worked before and what new ways you have to strengthen what was already good.
Of course, there’s still plenty of hard work on the horizon, but there’s a huge difference between working toward a clear vision and trying to figure out what you want to do in the first place. They’re both difficult, they both reward effort, but the latter is far more frustrating. Don’t let it beat you; the hardest part of any scene is forming a clear idea of what you want it to accomplish. After that, everything else is working out the details.
Have you tried any of the techniques above? Do you have some of your own that you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments, and check out The Better Way To End Your Scene (With Exercises) and How To Write Chapter Breaks That Leave Readers Aching For More for more great advice on this topic.