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What’s Wrong with My Scene? Part 1


I write this fresh off the back of a wonderful workshop facilitated by Eon author Alison Goodman . The concept was fixing scenes in your novel you sense aren’t working. Thought I’d share some of the gems I took away from it …


The first thing Alison talked through with us was the idea that a scene must contain ACTION that moves through (or entails) CONFLICT. Something has to happen. It can’t just be people walking from the bus to the front door if there’s no conflict, no change, or nothing driving the plot forward. You as a writer might be interested in Janee’s crossstitch technique as she sits by her window with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon, or the colors Fred uses to paint his Warhammer figurines, but I dare say, few readers will be…


Now if Janee is kicking herself for letting her boyfriend dump her first and taking it out on the crosstitch — or Fred’s Warhammer figurines (is that the right word??) come to life, then THAT’s interesting! Because that entails conflict and drama. It’s the conflict that shapes the tension and vitality of a scene. That conflict will be one or more of the following:

  1. inner (e.g. needs versus desire; the comfort of the status quo versus the higher calling of ideals, faith versus feelings)
  2. interpersonal (conflict with a loved one, a family member, a friend)
  3. extra-personal (where the conflict is with something from outside the character’s inner circles: a villain, a society, an event, an environment)


We writers must be clear on what conflict(s) the scene contains (and what it’s there for). Once that’s clear, we craft an “action/reaction” cycle where characters do something (or the environment does something) and the others react. This action/reaction essences the conflict(s). Once there’s a kind of climax to the scene (and that could be as simple as one character running away and slamming the door, or a character shooting someone dead, or the interruption of a routine phone call), then the scene is largely over and needs to be exited asap.


There was another great point Alison made which I’ll dump here and then leave you to think through all this (if it’s where you’re at). The best writers play with their readers’ expectations during a scene (or a sequence of scenes).


This put me in mind of the wonderful scene in Tony Stark’s penthouse in The Avengers where Hulk and Loki confront each other. Loki launches into what I expected would be the typical Villain Monologue…and without spoiling the scene, the writers play with our expectations in a wonderful way. (And interestingly, once they do and that particular “conflict” is done, the scene’s over – they get the hell out of that scene as quick as they can without spoiling the moment).


So. If you’re a writer and you’re looking at a scene and wondering why it feels ikky, consider it using the ideas above:


  • what’s the conflict(s)?
  • where’s the action and what’s it accomplishing? Where’s it need tightening or tweaking or enhancing?
  • how does the scene climax and does it go on too long perhaps?


Happy writing.


Published inOn Writing

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