Let’s say you’re working on a scene in your story. It’s supposed to be a turning point. You know what’s at stake. You know which characters will be involved. You know what you want to have happen. You know how you want it to end.
But somehow when you write it, nothing goes as planned. Either your characters get bogged down and talk about nothing important, or things veer off course, or you can’t make the scene end, or it doesn’t achieve the resolution you intended.
Just about every writer has had this happen, so if you’re experiencing this quandary, be assured you’re not alone.
If your characters bog down … look for the point in their scene dialogue when the conflict jumps track. Consider the following primary reasons: 1) the antagonist deliberately changes the subject and both you, dear writer, and your protagonist lose sight of the scene goal; or, 2) your protagonist’s emotional stake in the scene’s outcome is too tepid; or, 3) you have too many characters in the scene, interrupting each other.
Reason #3 is the easiest to address. Eliminate everyone but the two characters in conflict. Send the sidekicks out of the room. Lose the cute tiger cub lying at the villain’s feet. Avoid text messages on the protagonist’s phone; shut down phone calls and anxious little secretarial tappings on the door. If there are onlookers that really do have to be present as a backdrop, keep them quiet until the scene is over.
Do some authors write scenes that feature multiple characters and interruptions? Yes. But until you’re adept at scenes, avoid this construction.
Reason #2 means you should re-examine your protagonist’s motivations. Why is it so important to borrow the boat keys at this moment, on this day? What will happen if the keys are withheld? In other words, what’s at stake in this scene for your protagonist and why does it matter? If your protagonist starts a scene with a meh attitude toward the scene goal, the scene will lose momentum quickly and stall.
Reason #1 may seem heinous to fix, but actually it means your villain is working very well. Now you just have to bring your protagonist up to speed.
While it’s tempting to rein in your antagonist, avoid doing so! The bad guy or girl is doing a good job here. Instead, pull your hero together, pump up his or her motivation, and keep the scene focused on the goal despite all the antagonist’s tricks.
If you can’t get the scene to end … it feels like you’re mired in quicksand, sinking fast, with no way out. The rescue rope is actually the scene goal. What happened to it? When was it forgotten? Focus your protagonist on that, and keep your character moving toward it.
Also, sometimes the conflict in scenes lapses into circular bickering that won’t end. This usually occurs because the character motivations are weak, and the scene goal is lost or lame. Are the scene’s stakes too low? What might happen if you raised them?
However, remember that not everything in your story has to be written in a scene. The story action may not be important enough to warrant dramatization. Reserve scenes for turning points, strong conflict, and high stakes.
If the scene outcome surprises you … that’s usually because you’ve lost control of your characters.
Who’s in charge, anyway?
When I was writing my first stories, I used to hope that my characters would seize control of the plot and do all the hard work for me. Usually those attempts flopped before completion. Then I learned that I had to be in charge, and that I shouldn’t let my characters take over. While you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on them, remember that your protagonist should propel the story action forward. And if you can’t reach the scene outcome you want, maybe you need to rethink it.
Have you intended your protagonist to achieve the scene goal with no problems? Then be aware that you will weaken your story and lose suspense and rising tension if you do that. Having your protagonist achieve only part of the scene’s objective–and at a high or unexpected cost–forces your lead character to take bigger risks in the next attempt.
Maybe your scene is heading toward a too-predictable outcome, and maybe your story sense is trying to help you by stalling the scene. Maybe you need a plot twist–something that will be logical to the story but entirely unexpected to your protagonist and reader.
When scenes go astray, train yourself to pay attention. Check these problem areas, and above all, listen to what your instincts are trying to tell you.