Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Awake, dead scene!
On September 28, 2012, GillyB wrote, What do you do when you have a dead scene on your hands? You know what's meant to happen next. You even know what SHOULD happen in this scene. But it just isn't moving. Your characters, which were alive like just a second ago, are suddenly wooden puppets. How do you rescue yourself? What if everything that follows is riding on this particular scene and it just needs to happen, for Pete's sake?
Try this: Skip the scene. Assume the events in it have happened and write on from there. I got this idea from mystery writer Lawrence Block’s book about writing, Spider, Spin Me a Web. (I haven’t read this book in many years, so I don’t know what age level it’s appropriate for - check with a librarian. I remember the book fondly.) Mr. Block suggests that you’ve already written the scene in your head, so actually typing or penning it is too boring for your brain to accept. If this is true, you can go merrily on, finish your story and insert the scene in revision.
But if you skip the scene and your characters are still made of wood in the scene that follows, you may have a plot problem. You may be forcing your characters to act contrary to their natures as you’ve written them.
You can ask them. Interview your characters in notes. You can write, Cindy, what’s your problem? And Cindy may say, How could you make me be rude to Mr. Morris? I wouldn’t be! You know me!
In this case, you may need to go back and turn Cindy into someone who can be rude, if that will work for the rest of the story. If not, can you make events unfold so she doesn’t have to behave badly.
Or she may say, I just don’t believe we’d raid the tower when the guards are right there, and besides, even if we liberate the royal rabbit, we can’t keep her safe. It doesn’t make sense. If you make me do it, don’t expect me to be normal about it.
If that's what she says, or something like it, consider what’s going on in the scene. Examine your premises, especially if this is a pivotal moment in your story. Is what you’re planning believable? Is it overly complicated? Can you simplify? Talk to a friend and ask for an opinion. Have her read what you’ve got and see what her take is.
It’s possible, too, that the scene is fine. Say your friend doesn’t see the woodenness, and neither does the next person you show it to. Could be you’re just picking on yourself. Keep writing, and assume you’ll be better able to judge the scene when you’ve been away from it for a while.
But if you discover that there really is a problem with the scene, you may have to rethink a lot of your story and you may be in for a big rewrite. This is disappointing, but also an opportunity. In realizing what’s wrong, in fixing it, in making your story better than ever, you’re learning to be a better writer.
Alas and hooray, I’ve had many such learning experiences.
Here’s another possibility: You’re rushing the scene and not giving your characters a chance to be their lovable and not-so-lovable selves. You have goals for what needs to be accomplished at this plot juncture, but you may be forgetting that your characters’ goals aren’t the same as yours. Make sure you’re including your POV character’s thoughts. If the situation allows for dialogue, are you giving your characters a chance to express themselves? In your notes you might try inhabiting each one in turn. Write down what it feels like to be Cindy on a moonless night, standing at the base of the tower. Is she cold? Did she forget to wear a scarf? Is her stomach churning? Is she worried about whether she’ll be up to the job? Mad at the leader of the raid for poor planning? What’s her idea of success? Maybe, right at this moment, she’s caring more about getting back to her cozy room than about the glory of saving the royal rabbit. Maybe she giggles at the thought of how much she likes rabbit stew.
Go on to the next character. How is it to be Peter here in this moment? And on to another character.
When you’re done, think about how they can be themselves and still accomplish what needs to happen. It’s possible that you have more than one scene on your hands and that, when you slow down, all will work and be exciting.
Yet another thought: Is your setting vague? Are your characters having trouble moving around in it? Is that what’s turning them to wood?
One more: Take a look at the scene before the wooden one. How is your transition? Is everything set up for what comes next?
To summarize, I’ve listed the alternatives I just suggested, some or all of which may apply to your story:
• Skip the scene and keep going.
• Ask your characters in an interview in notes what they think the problem is.
• Change a character, or more than one, so he can behave naturally in the scene.
• Examine your premises to see if what’s happening is believable.
• If necessary, revise your plot.
• Get a friend’s opinion.
• Accept the possibility that you’re being over-critical and keep writing.
• Expand the scene to give your characters more scope to be themselves, to think, speak, and act.
• Solidify your setting so your characters can move around comfortably.
• Check to see if the problem starts in the scene before the wooden one.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Pick an old story that you didn’t finish. Reread the scene where you gave up and try the approaches I suggest above. If you get re-inspired, finish your story.
∙ The assault on the tower to rescue the royal rabbit is your pivotal scene. Write up to it, assembling your company of brave bunny saviors. Write a scene in the tower where the rabbit is confined, because I’ve gotten very curious about her. Is she intelligent? Can she talk? Is she good? Or is she the villain? How big is she? Then write the assault and the ending, if you like.
∙ The pivotal scene in Little Red Riding Hood begins when Little Red opens the door to her grandmother’s cottage. Re-imagine it. Flesh out the characters of Little Red and Grandma and Big Bad. (You may have to write the beginning as well.) Write the pivotal scene and what follows. You're not limited to the way it goes down in the fairy tale.
Have fun, and save what you write!