The Bad Scene
Sometimes you sit back after a long day on the book, pounding the keys, and realize that none of your three happy phrases that signal a good work day are coming to mind. No not too bad, that'll work, or the rare but blissful, hey that's good!
Instead, your critical faculties are hemming and hawing like a parent presented with an impossible-to-decipher crayon masterpiece. Finally, your brain admits the truth: That scene? That you just killed yourself on? That scene is bad.
(Not to be confused with the wrong scene* which is an entirely different animal.)
A bad scene may have all the right ingredients: the right events, the right characters, the right time, the right everything and yet…
It's flat. It's clunky. And most of all, somehow, despite being "right", it kills all momentum dead in your head and on the page.
Which means… I've got to stop and analyze what I've missed.
Over the years, I've created a checklist of my usual flaws to search for:
- lurking ramifications in the text that I overlooked. A plot sinkhole that hasn't quite happened yet, but the ground is getting soft, about to drop out beneath me.
- lack of conflict. Something that I thought would be a meaty source of tension turns out to be weak or false. Not set up properly, or just not believable when it actually happens.
- similarly, a conflict that takes a giant step back emotionally. It's the mantra of the writer: things get worse. If something gets better? Without reason? Something's not right.
- character check out. Somehow, somewhen, I lost my character. He or she or it might be present on the page, might even say the right things, but in all the important ways—emotion, thought, involvement—they've left the stage and taken the story with them. This can cover secondary characters or the connection between characters.
- no future here. I started a conflict that should be great, but! I'm not going to get to explore it properly throughout the rest of the book, so I end up trying to jam an entire subplot in one scene.
- wrong words, wrong connotation. Things stressed in the wrong places. Things that promise one thing in the scene, but deliver another. This is easy to do, especially when I'm trying to make a scene do three or more things.
These are my usual sins. And after looking over the two (!) bad scenes I wrote in two separate projects, yep, my problems are in the list.
Bad Scene 1) Character check out. The confrontation between the lovers is… blank. X's not playing any longer.
Cure? Figure out why. Do I know what he wants from this scene? Does what he wants in this scene gel with his larger book level want? Is the scene repetitive? Has he been there, done that?
Answer? My fault. I don't know what he wants in this scene. Go back. Start over.
Bad Scene 2) Conflict taking a giant step back. Oh noes! Character B has been kidnapped and Character A is desperate to find her! Because Villain A is a terrible, torturing no-good monster. Except! Villain A doesn't have her! And that means? If Villain A doesn't have her, then Villain B is the probable kidnapper. And Villain B is… not a monster. Character A, instead of becoming more frantic, gets to breathe a sigh of relief.
Cure? Tricky, here. I can't reverse the villains. I can't reverse her assumptions—it's human nature to jump to the worst conclusion.
Answer: I can refocus it. Villain A is a danger to body. Villain B will remove the mind. And while death is obviously not a good result, is it any better to recover a character who no longer cares for/about, even recognizes, the heroine? There's a certain degree of horror to watching the body walk around without the personality you love. And that's before Villain B turns her into an enemy.
Still no fun, but at least it gives me something to work with. To exorcise the bad scene.
Like bad scenes, I've written myself a diagnostic list. (I may over analyze everything and my computer may be full of lists, but hey, that's the way my brain rolls.)
- wrong place in the plot. Totally out of place. Maybe even in the wrong book. This covers things like having your character on the run, with hounds on her heels, and bad guys all around, and… stopping to shop and admire clothing. Or go on a date. Or pretty much anything that requires a 180 of emotion.
- wrong POV. Self-explanatory. The scene might be right on an event level, but I've got the wrong person looking at it.
- wrong pacing. A clock ticking slower instead of faster. Events can only hamper plot.
- wrong event. Meaningless event. Something that doesn't add to the book at all.
- wrong theme. The rest of the book is working a couple themes, and this one clashes.
The only thing to do with a wrong scene is to cut it. Attempting to make it fit only leads to a bad scene.
What about you all? Any particular sin you find yourself committing?