What to Do When a Scene Isn’t Working

writing a sceneSo let’s imagine you’re writing a scene.  At least, you’re trying to write a scene.  But it’s not coming easily: your prose is flat, your descriptions are plain, and your characters bore even you.

Sometimes you feel this way when you’re getting back into writing after a break, or when you’ve just started writing for the day.  But if you’re all warmed up and everything still feels like a struggle, this may be an indication that something larger is amiss.

If you can, you should take a break from this scene and write a different one, or consider cutting it from your story altogether.  But what do you do if the scene is integral to your plot?

When writing a scene becomes difficult, I always end up asking myself, is this scene awful?  Or am I awful?

I usually blame myself for a while.  But in reality, it’s usually just that the scene is awful, or that your whole work-in-progress needs to be rethought.

This was my life all last week.  I had a super difficult time writing one chapter, and I was all

downton abbey gif

Finally, I was able to meet with the professor who is advising me on this project.  She spent the last couple weeks reading the first twelve chapters or so of my work, so now she is caught up to the point which I’m writing from.  She said that while there’s tension, a strong sense of place, and solid characterization within those pages, there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with my plot.  As in, there isn’t one.

I was like

hyperventilating gif

And my professor was like

there there gif

It was so difficult to write because  I didn’t know what was at stake for any of my characters.  This means I have a lot more work to do.

But, moving forward, the chapters should flow a little more easily.  It also means I’ll probably write a post in the future about answering the question “Do you have a plot?”  But only after I figure my own mess out.

In the meantime, what should you do if a scene is being stubborn and difficult?  Apparently, look at overall plot problems.  But if you have a deadline, as I did, here are some quick fixes that will at least help you cobble together a first draft:

1) Handwrite for a day.  This will muffle the voice of your pesky inner editor, the one who is telling you that everything you write is shit.  You’ll be able to do your first edit as you’re transcribing the pages into your favorite word processor.

2) Mix it up. Here’s the meat and potatoes of Why Do I Write, Anyway?’s guide:

Toss the chronological timeline out the window. The scene absolutely has to include this frustrating beginning. Fine. It’s your novel; it’s your judgement call. But that doesn’t mean the scene has to start at the beginning. Skip to the part you want to write, most likely the exciting part. Write that. Then jump back. Maybe you return to the very beginning, maybe you don’t. Jump forward again; pick up where you left off. Or don’t: show the character finally out of the situation and looking back on it. Bottom line: write the part of the scene that grabs you, no matter where it is. Skip around however you like. (Maybe you’ll even end up leaving the scene organized that way.)

Completely change what your character was going to do. Often, you’ll find yourself stalled because your inner storyteller’s gut knows better than to let you move forward. Something here, the way you have it, just isn’t working. So step back and let your characters throw a curveball. Let them take hold of the scene, flip it on its head, and give it a couple of kicks to the stomach. Let everything go wild. At least something’s happening. Even if it’s all a little too extreme for your story, you may stumble upon a thread of action that can be watered down for a more appropriate edit

Change the location. Put your characters in the same basic situation, but shift them to a more dynamic location. If they’re sitting in a room talking to each other, put them on a crowded bus instead, or in a classroom during an important exam. Whatever they’re doing, put complications in their way. Make it more difficult for them. Have an aggravated stranger pick a fight with one of them while they’re unloading from the bus. Force them to track the teacher and whisper in order to communicate. Again, the scene may not end up being left in this exact form; just focus on getting yourself writing.

Write from a different character’s perspective. If the person isn’t alone in the scene and you’re not writing in third-person-omniscient, dial in on someone else. Get their thoughts; observe the main character as they act rather than as they think. How do their actions look from an “outsider’s” perspective? Also, what is this new POV character of yours doing in the scene? What do they know about what’s going on, and what’s beyond their knowledge? Gain as much story information as you can, and then skip into a different head.

3) Scene Outline PDF: by Creative Writing Now, this outline will help you establish the basic elements of your scene.  The final question is the most important: “What does the scene accomplish in the novel?  Does it move the character forward toward his/her goal or further away from it?”

What do you do when you get stuck?


14 thoughts on “What to Do When a Scene Isn’t Working

  1. Stakes! That’s one of the biggest problems I have when crafting my stories. I’m envious of authors I’ve seen in panels who cackle gleefully when outlining the various ways they torture their characters. Then I look back on my own story, and I’m like, “My characters get it so easy,” and they’re probably rebelling because they’re an honorable type and probably don’t like it when I come at them with kid gloves.

    Great post! Switching to another character’s perspective really helps me when I’m stuck with a scene. The change in viewpoint brings out details I hadn’t realized were there. Also, strangely enough, if I step back and imagine my character with amnesia and have other characters come to their side and fill in the holes in their memory, really helps me too.

    Thanks for sharing these tips. :)

    Amelia | Robinson Writes

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  5. This is just what the doctor ordered. I hit a snag with a chapter in general, so I just did a little “flash fiction” and wrote out what I could in 10 minutes. Made my day. I wrote about it here

  6. I figured the issue with my 2nd chapter was that I wasn’t sure how I was getting from there to the 1st plot point!, then I realized that I wasn’t really putting anything at risk, there were a lot of secrets each character had but nothing was currently threatening their secrets. Ugh, now I must go bakc and figure out how to put up the stakes, I guess its best i figured this problem earlier on? :-) Thanks for the post just what I needed!

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