Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 2: Knowing the point of the scene

Usually, when I add a scene to a drafted story, it's for one of three reasons: a reader comment, a character nudge, or a vague feeling that something is missing. None of these, of course, tell me what the purpose of the scene is, and that's vital to correctly fitting it in so it feels as if it has always been there.

The most common reader comment that causes me to go back and make changes is "my attention lagged here." (People are usually so rude as to phrase it that way, but I actually explicitly seek that feedback.) Most often, lacking attention is caused by the "darlings." These are the parts of the story where characters make clever speeches or I get rhapsodic about nature or something technical. But holes in the story can also cause readers to disengage and "darling" scenes may be more than just author intrusion. They can be patches over the holes.

When a character nudges me, it's usually because his or her (or its) story is incomplete. I've forgotten to say what happened to a secondary character. I haven't really provided the reason why so-and-so did something so drastic. Or the character just wants to share something interesting. Characters never asked me to cut their lines for their scenes. When they tapped me on the shoulder, it's because they want more attention.

Those vague feelings? My gut knows when the scene is wrong, and also knows when I need to do something more dangerous or even create a new character, a new incident, or uncover a secret that has remained hidden from me. Often this feels like a piece of music has dropped out of a song or one musician missed his cue. I'd say missing scenes that are indicated by discomfort pushed me to the point where they are unavoidable most often when I read the work out loud. It is not unusual for me to begin adding sentences right then, or to put the manuscript down and pace around until I find an answer or commit to a lot of hard work.

What's missing? What's the point of the scene that needs to be added? It may be a face-to-face confrontation between two major characters. It may be a quiet scene that sets up drama. It may be a scene that provides relief for the reader, a break in the tension.

Often, omitted scenes are those that feel too personal or too on the nose. The work in these cases is to probe a wound or write something flat and then use my understanding of the characters to create real dialogue.

You may have noticed that many of the scenes that are both essential and left out are problem children. They include work that is challenging, seemingly beyond my capabilities. (Certainly beyond my feelings of competence.) They may force me to relive painful moments in my life. Or they may just promise a lot of hours at the keyboard working the prose, fixing other parts the manuscript, or collecting the full story from a gabby character, knowing I'll need to chop down 10 pages to three.

So, for one of the scenes I just reworked, the starting point was the reader's request for an action scene. Fair enough. My heroes tended to stumble across problems that led to pursuits, attacks, captures, traps, and impossible dilemmas. I certainly know how to brainstorm material like that. But I couldn't just drop it in. It had to have a point. And I went through using this to reveal hidden dimensions of my protagonists, to underline the conflicting values of the characters, and to bring readers more thoroughly into the odd world I'd created. All good purposes for a scene.

But what I settled on — which dictated exactly where this scene would fit in and showed me beats that were missing in the scenes on either side — was a recommitment to the quest by the protagonist. He had to do this, and I'm not sure why I didn't see that as I was drafting the story. Because, at about this time, things get really tough. It becomes clear that it takes more than a promise or dedication to honor to go forward when your life will be put into jeopardy and your best friend might die.

Knowing what the scene needed to do helped me go forward to the next step in creating the best scene for that part of the story. And that next step was looking at the power dynamics which is what will be the subject of my next post.

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