All That Glitters Isn’t Gold: When Your Scene Doesn’t Work

This article first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Update, the newsletter of Washington Romance Writers.

We’ve all had that moment of realization. Those words that glittered so brightly as we committed them to paper, they just don’t hold up in the bright light of day. The scene isn’t working. As writers, it’s one of our worst nightmares.

We all recognize good prose. It reaches us on many levels. Similarly, when we read something that doesn’t work, we recognize that it doesn’t reach out and make us care what happens next. So what can we do? How do we get that tarnish off our words and polish our scenes into what’s sure to become the next best seller?

Anyone who’s ever read Deborah Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict will tell you that a scene has to advance at least one of these key elements listed in the title of her book. As you look over a nonworking scene, check for this first. If the scene doesn’t convey something additional about the point of view (POV) character’s goal, motivation, or conflict that is relevant to the storyline, this needs to be addressed first.

So, if goal, motivation, and conflict are the messages that we writers have to get across, what is the most effective way to do this? Writing books abound with instructions and rules, so many that it’s easy to become overloaded with tools of the trade. My simplistic view is to paint a compelling picture with thoughts, words, and deeds. If you have a scene that’s not working, stop and ask yourself, what’s the point of this scene? How does it add to the story? If you can’t answer these questions, work backwards, crafting the answers you want the scene to provide and then working that intent into your scene.

Another key concept mentioned in Dixon’s book is that a scene must do at least three things. In other words, we need to multi-task our scenes. The best way to illustrate this point is to review a scene from your keeper bookshelf. A scene that immediately springs to my mind is from Jayne Ann Krentz’s Soft Focus. Briefly, the heroine publicly confronts the hero over lunch about his deception. She vents her fury over his prior destruction of her friend’s business. This information is filtered through the hero’s POV, only he’s still thinking about his inadequacies from making love to her the previous evening. The scene ends with his stony reminder that their business contract binds them tighter than husband and wife.

Lots of things are going on in that opening scene because Krentz gets in goal, motivation, and conflict for both main characters. But like any truly great scene, there’s more here than meets the eye. Even though this scene contains relatively little action (two people meeting for lunch), our interest is held by the swift pacing, the sexual tension, and the emotional impact. This scene works because readers care about what comes next.

As a writer, I find scene dynamics are the hardest to get right. Pacing, tension, and emotion remind me of manually winding up a clock. If you don’t wind it enough, the clock runs down too soon. If you wind it too tight, the clock may break. In the same way, pacing, tension, and emotion control the flow of a story. It’s not enough to convey information about goal, motivation, and conflict. If it was, our stories would all resemble first draft synopses. The true challenge is to layer a scene seamlessly in a way that leaves the reader wanting more.

So, how do we put the glitter back in our scenes? One of the first things to remember is that our characters are complex individuals. We need to know who they are, what they want, and what colors their thinking. Second, we need to realize that scenes must move the story forward. The immediacy of the scene must telegraph its urgency through the POV character to the reader. Thirdly, scenes must build on each other. A good example of this is the tv drama program Law and Order. Every scene of the show is embedded with a nugget of information that propels viewers into the next scene. And finally, use the tried and true maxim of ‘show don’t tell’. Don’t inadvertently distance the reader by telling what is happening.

If the information in your scene isn’t relevant or compelling, ask yourself these hard questions. Why is it there? Is it told from the most interesting POV? What’s at stake? And finally, what would you lose by taking the scene out? Your answers to these questions will dictate how you fix your broken scene.

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