So there I was: sitting at my desk, notebook in front of me—and absolutely no words staring back at me. The problem? I knew what needed to happen in this scene, but now that the time had come to write it, it seemed flat as a roadkill raccoon. It was clearly time to troubleshoot a scene and give it a fixer-upper. But where to start?
The single greatest challenge when trying to troubleshoot a scene is that the problem could be one (or more) of any dozens of issues. Sometimes, of course, you’ll sit down to write a scene without really knowing what it’s about, and you’ll end up rambling around, clearing your throat, and writing filler just to figure out what to write.
That’s a problem unto itself. Today, what I want to talk about is how to spice up scenes in which you know what events need to happen, but which you’re having trouble executing in an engaging way.
Do you have a scene in front of you that’s feeling:
- All of the above?
With a few simple brainstorming tricks, you can figure out how to troubleshoot a scene that’s giving you problems and turn it into one of the highlights of your entire manuscript.
How to Know When You Need to Troubleshoot a Scene
First off, let’s talk about how you can know when you need to troubleshoot a scene.
Most of the time, this is easy: the scene is driving you nuts.
It’s not working and you know it’s not working. You’ve played with it so much, you can’t stand the sight of it anymore, but you keep tweaking and fiddling without actually getting to the root of the issue.
Other times, a scene may feel like it’s working on almost every level but one. It works fine to power the plot forward and to accomplish the necessary effect you’re going for… and yet, something is off in one area or another.
For me, the single greatest litmus test for whether or not a scene is working is: Am I having fun writing this? If not, that’s almost always a sure sign I need to have a serious facedown with the blank page and figure out what important ingredient is missing.
Usually, it’s one of the following.
8 Common Problems When Trying to Troubleshoot a Scene
Here are eight of the most common problems I encounter when figuring out how to troubleshoot a scene. Inevitably, one or more of these is at the root of the issue. Once you identify it, you’re halfway to fixing it.
1. The Scene Is One-Dimensional
The troublesome scene I talked about in the opening paragraph was fundamentally problematic because it started out as a very one-dimensional scene. It was a scene late in the book, full of revelations about things I’d been hinting at for most of the plot. But now that the time had come to reveal them, I found myself staring at a chapter full of talking heads. There was no life, no zest, no movement, and no visual interest. Just three character sitting around gasping and going, “Uhhhhh, I understand everything now!!!” Riveting.
You can run into this problem in many different types of scene. Whether your scene is all talking, all sword-fighting, all to-being-or-not-to-being, or all kissing, chances are you’ve got a one-dimensional scene on your hands.
2. The Scene Lacks Forward Momentum
Whenever I find myself stuck on a scene that’s going nowhere, the first thing I do is stop and ask myself, “What does the character want?” The POV character’s goal is the foundation of good scene structure. It’s what drives the plot forward, keeps things literally moving, and sets up the rest of the necessary structural interplay.
That was another problem I faced in my troublesome scene: what did the characters want here? What did they want other than to just sit around while the pieces clicked together for them? As soon as I engineered a goal, I instantly had a sense of forward momentum with the characters moving toward something, rather than just sitting around waiting for the revelations to hit.
3. The Scene Proceeds Unimpeded
After you’ve realized your character’s scene goal, the next step is to make sure his path to that goal isn’t unimpeded. Conflict—in the shape of an obstacle to that goal—spices up any scene. The character needs to go talk to someone else? Too simple. Stick in an obstacle. Perhaps someone else wants to talk to Character #2 too—and the protagonist doesn’t want Character #3 around to hear all these important revelations he was about to unload on Character #2.
4. The Scene Lacks a Resolution
To truly move the plot, every scene must be cohesive unit unto itself. It must have a beginning, and it must have an end. If the characters don’t end the scene in a different space—mentally, if not physically—from the one in which they began the scene, then you can deduce one of two things about your scene:
1. The scene is completely nonessential to the plot and can be pulled.
2. The scene hasn’t ended yet.
The character’s relationship to her scene goal must change in some respect from the beginning of the scene. Either she conquers the obstacle and gets what she wants, or fails and is worse off than ever. Most often, she will encounter a “yes, but… disaster,” in which she may gain the scene goal only to encounter new complications that must be dealt with in the next scene.
5. The Scene Is Too Busy
As you’re concentrating on all this admirable work of spicing up your dull scene, you might find yourself slipping into the overcompensation of adding too much to your scene. One of legendary director John Ford’s guiding principles was that each scene should only try to accomplish one thing.
In other words, your scene should be about your character trying to discover that important missing clue—not about your character trying to discover that important missing clue while also playing matchmaker to his two hapless friends, while also learning he got a scholarship to Yale, while also learning his dad is mad at him for not gassing up the car the previous night.
This does not mean the scene needs to be simple. Even an extremely complex scene with many thematic layers and intersecting character goals should still have a clear and cohesive focus.
6. The Scene Lacks Complexity
And that brings us to complexity itself. Just as a scene may suffer from being one-dimensional in focusing too stringently on one aspect—such as dialogue or action—it can also suffer from being too straightforward in its intent.
But didn’t you (and, more importantly, John Ford) just say to focus a scene on one thing?
One subject, yes—one goal for your POV character. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid complexity in your presentation of plot, theme, and character.
Even as your scene is a straight arrow toward its resolution, you want the entire rest of your story to be breathing and pulsing beneath the surface. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans that:
For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.
In short, we’re all connected. The lives, actions, and goals of all of your characters should affect all the rest of your characters. In your focus on getting your protagonist to his goal, don’t lose sight of the fierce passion and concentration with which all the rest of the characters in the scene are also living out their lives within the story. You can mine this for all kinds of complexity in your subtext and subplots.
7. The Scene Is Too On the Nose
One of the dangers of learning and following proper scene structure is that you may find yourself creating paint-by-number scenes that have no life beyond the structural formula of Goal > Conflict > Disaster > Reaction > Dilemma > Decision. Whenever I run into this problem in my own plotting, I always hear Mike Wazowski’s voice in the back of my head:
See the stick? Go get the stick!
Too often, that’s how a scene can end up looking. The character has a goal. He goes to get the goal. Yawn. Move onto the next goal.
Be wary of letting your character’s progression to his goal be too straight or too easy. Try to spice up every scene with the unexpected or ironic.
8. The Scene Is Too Familiar
You will have many similar scenes within your story: action scenes, dialogue scenes, love scenes. Nothing wrong with that. But your challenge is to make sure each of these necessary scenes is “the same, but different.”
Another of the challenges I faced in doctoring my own scene was that the characters had already had several conversations about the mystery in question, in this same setting, with these same characters. By this point in the book, it was all starting to feel very familiar—even though the plot revelations themselves were entirely new and necessary. In realizing I was retreading old ground to some extent, I immediately had the opportunity to look for something new to spice up the scene in question even more.
After You Troubleshoot a Scene: 5 Ways to Spice It Up
Once you understand the reasons your scene isn’t working, you’re halfway to fixing it. But here are five important angles to consider in adding a little more pep to any troublesome scene.
1. Can You Change the Setting?
Believe it or not, this is always one of the first questions I ask myself when I’m struggling with a stubborn scene. A new and interesting setting can create the opportunity for all kinds of interesting scene angles you may not have previously considered.
Mom and daughter having a fight in the daughter’s bedroom? Boring. What if their car broke down during a flash flood in a bad part of town?
Even better, a strong setting will lend your story a vivid visual backdrop that will help bring the entire moment to life in readers’ imaginations.
2. Can You Add Any Characters?
Characters mean conflict. If your scene is cruising along toward its resolution with nary a bump, consider throwing some human complications into the mix.
This was my main move in my problem scene. Instead of having my two main characters progress unimpeded to a conversation with the third character, I added two more characters—one who was an emissary of bad news from an antagonist and another who was an ally but who did not at all appreciate the direction in which the main characters were headed.
Just remember to keep all the added characters and incumbent conflict in line with the scene’s main focus. As per John Ford, you don’t want to be throwing in disparate elements just for the sake of having something happen.
3. What Are the Other Characters’ Goals?
This is a juicy one. It’s not enough just to add some extra characters to the scene. Those characters need to have their own agendas.
When your protagonist meets Character #2, that character better not just be sitting around, twiddling her thumbs, and waiting for the protagonist. She better be in motion, in the midst of her own “scene,” which is then interrupted by the protagonist. Even more importantly, she better have her own goal.
What do you minor characters want in your scene? Even better, what can they want that will prove an obstacle to what your protagonist wants?
4. What Is Your Character’s Emotional Arc in This Scene?
Remember, plot and character are never isolated from one another. The outer conflict in any scene affects your character’s inner progression—and vice versa. That means you can’t create them in isolation.
As you’re figuring out the progression of the conflict in any given scene, take a moment to consider your protagonist’s emotional arc. How does he feel entering this scene after the events of the previous scene? How will he feel after this scene ends? How do you need him to feel in order to get him into the right frame of mind to advance his next scene’s goal?
In your haste to properly plot your scene, you may find it all too easy to neglect your character’s emotional arc. The result is often a flat, cold scene that is surprisingly boring simply because it fails to provide emotional context for the exciting outer events.
5. What Happens Next?
Often when I find I don’t really know what should be happening in a scene, it’s because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next scene. In order to get the protagonist from Point A to Point B in this scene, I first have to know what Point B is.
Sometimes you may find you need to skip ahead in your scene planning and figure out what happens in the next scene or even several future scenes. Sometimes I even end up plotting my way backwards all the way from a major structural moment (such as, say, the Midpoint), so I know exactly where this particular sequence of scenes should be headed.
If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s much harder to get there.
Don’t look upon the effort of figuring out how to troubleshoot a scene as a bad thing. Indeed, it’s the stuff of all storytelling! Approaching plot challenges and learning how to add richness and depth to every scene is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of brainstorming and creating a story. By learning to identify the problems that cause weak scenes and then using these five important entry points to solve them, you can write a manuscript that is a solid chain of one stellar scene after another.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your biggest challenge in figuring out how to troubleshoot a scene? Tell me in the comments!
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