When That Scene Just Doesn’t Work

We’ve all been there.

You’re typing away madly, barely hanging on as your characters get deeper and deeper into trouble. Or you’re lost in the rush of the words, the meter and cadence and rhythm.

And then . . . it isn’t coming so fast anymore. You’re struggling. You’re not sure why. You just feel that Something Isn’t Right With This. Nothing you can put your finger on. Just a subtle shift in the universe, is all. The dialogue feels stilted. Your characters, stifled. Your action, weird.

What do you do?

A LOT of people will give you this advice:  “Push on through! Write it anyway! If it sucks, you can revise it later! Don’t stop!”

What the fruitbat kind of crap is that???

If it’s not working, IT’S NOT WORKING. Here, let me get my soapbox back out. soapboxThere, that’s better. Now, back to what I was saying. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a reason why it isn’t working. There’s a reason why your fingers have gone still on the keyboard and your brain — and probably your characters — are screaming at you to stop. Just stop. Everything. For five minutes.

So you stop. Phew. Isn’t that better? Now. Let’s figure out exactly What Went Wrong.

There are any number of reasons why a scene doesn’t work at a particular time. Some of the most common are:

1.) You’re taking a wrong turn or going on a bad tangent. Writers have a gut instinct about their stories and where they need to go. If you find yourself stuck, think about it for a second. Is this scene taking you down some narrow, rutted dirt road with no way out? Are you going to get stuck and have to wait for some dudes blaring “Dueling Banjos” from speakers to come bail you out? Maybe your gut is telling you that’s exactly what’s happening. Just like we need to listen to our instincts in “real life,” we need to listen to them in our writing lives, too.

2.) This scene will change your novel — and not for the better. Is it making your characters do things they shouldn’t be doing? Is it slowing down the pace? Is it going to result in a complete turnabout for your storyline, one you don’t want?

3.) It’s just boring. Or worse, it just sucks. This happened to me last week. The scene is crucial to my storyline; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how it was written, initially. It — well, here. You can see for yourself. The first is the way it was originally written; the second is when I stopped and said, “this sucks!” and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes later, I saw Adam loitering in the shadows at the end of the porter’s lodge, inside the quad. When he saw me, he took a few steps forward, into the light, and I could see the fear leave his face for a second, see the relief that flooded through him – only to see it disappear in the next second, and the fear return. He stopped, some distance from me, and I slowed my steps, hesitant.

“Come.” He jerked his head towards the quad, and I followed him. It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried down the cobblestone walks, through a small gate, and across another quad towards the dorms. I’d never been in this part of the campus before, but Adam seemed to know exactly where he was going, his long strides eating up the walks.

“Adam,” I gasped, “what the hell’s going on?”

Yeah, I’m a coward. What I really wanted to ask was whether he knew I could see ghosts, whether she’d told him. I didn’t have to; Adam gave me a quick glance, and in his eyes I saw everything.

“She’s flipping out,” he said. “Screaming about you and how you’ve done something to her and she’s got to talk to you right now so it can be fixed.” His steps paused, and he searched my face; then he stopped completely, and grabbed my arm to stop me, too. “Erin,” he said. “What does she mean? She said – she said to tell you they’re everywhere, and she believes you. She said – she said she has to see you, right now.”

Okay. It’s not bad, exactly:  it just wasn’t going anywhere. So I immediately stopped, and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes late, I dashed through the gates and saw Adam at the other end of the walk, in the shadows. He stepped forward, and I stumbled to a halt at the look in his eyes.

“Adam,” I whispered, “what the hell’s going on?”

His face was white; his eyes looked haunted, afraid. And when he touched my arm briefly, I could feel it trembling, even through my sweater and coat.

“Wish I knew,” he said. “She . . . she called me about an hour ago. Completely off her rocker. Begged me to come over, to make them go away. And then . . .” He took a shuddering breath, and jerked his head towards the quad. “Come on. Better you see for yourself.”

It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air around me, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried across the quad and out the north gates, towards the dorms. I’d never been on this part of campus before, but Adam seemed to know where he was going, his long strides making it difficult to keep up with him. Every now and then he’d glance over his shoulder to make sure I was still there, but he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t seem to want me to get too close to him.

Something twisted up deep inside me. But I forced myself to follow him into one of the nineteenth-century dormers and up two flights of steps. The entire house felt oppressive; I felt pressure from all sides, and my senses immediately went on guard.

I had to GET ON WITH IT. So I did.

4.) Your characters are telling you to stop. This does happen. Sometimes we think we know where a story needs to go and what needs to happen, and what we really need to do is listen to our characters. It’s not your story, after all; it belongs to them. They live in that world. They have to deal with the fallout of their decisions. And if they’re just sitting there like lumps, it’s probably because you’re not listening to them. Listen to them. Then do what they tell you to do.

5.) It isn’t moving the story forward. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, that beautiful prose that springs from our pens (or keyboards) just doesn’t get the job done. I’m a firm believer that if a scene doesn’t perform at least two functions, it isn’t working hard enough. A scene can be beautifully written and still have tension, deliver information, convey character and character changes. Scenes must move the story forward. If yours doesn’t, you have two choices:  revise it, or, as Stephen King says, “murder your darlings.”

Yes, I’ve had to do that. I hate it. But it’s not gone forever! You still have it on your hard drive, and your flash drive, and in the cloud, and  in hard copy, and in a dozen other places because we never ever have just one version of our novels, right?! And who knows? Maybe it can be reworked into something different. Maybe you can pull certain quotes or sentences and use them elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is, if you’re stuck on a scene — ABANDON IT. That scene isn’t the only gig in town, I promise! And what you learn from that scene will only help make the right one even better.

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