What To Do With Those WTF? Scenes

Everybody’s got them.  Those scenes that we wrote during our first draft either because a whim told us to or because the outline seemed to dictate that we do so.  Those scenes that when we come back during revisions (or possibly during the first draft because you keep beating your head against the same scene over and over) where we scratch our heads and ask WTF is wrong with this scene?  Why isn’t it working?

I have totally been working on one of those scenes.  It’s the one that’s held me up for a few weeks because I didn’t know how my heroine fit into the scene.  I thought the problem was that I was out of touch with her and that I had her acting out of character.  That conclusion led me to spew out 600 words of straight dialogue that didn’t do much for the scene.  So I went back to my worksheet.  Remember the scene worksheet I talked about during my Pantser to Plotter series?  I went back to check on my purpose for the scene.  This is what I had:

When they get back to the cabin, Ewan confronts Conall.  “What the fuck are you doing?”  And Conall says that should be perfectly obvious.  He’s still reacting to everything.  He’s been on super high alert for days and has just made a major life decision in a snap–a major decision to abandon the shadows, to not only stop hiding but to actively compete for leadership, which is a role he never wanted.  He’s never felt worthy of leading anyone, never wanted the responsibility and resenting the idea that his destiny has been decided for him.  If Knox had not demanded the Rite of Lineage, he could have fought without revealing that he is the whatever.  But he can’t hide anymore.  This clan and all others will have expectations for him.  Oh, the pressure!  And his family will hear that he’s resurfaced, which is a whole other issue.  And on top of it all, if he does win alpha, the clan is unlikely to ever accept Marley as alpha female, which would thus undermine Conall’s authority and put him in direct line for dealing with an inssurection.  Ewan points a lot of this out.  Conall doesn’t take it well.  Before much gets explained, they are interrupted by someone showing up looking for medical attention and Conall sort of storms out and goes to work, leaving Marley in Ewan and Anya’s protection.

“A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle lived through by the character and reader.”
Which of the following does the scene accomplish?
____   (G) Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes a character’s goal.
____   (M) Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.
__x__  (C) Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.

•    What are the three reasons for the scene?
1. Show Conall’s reaction to the events of the last chapter.
2. Show exactly what he’s giving up by fighting for Marley.
3. To set up how this is an impossible relationship.  No matter which way it goes, it doesn’t look like there’s a solution.

•    How does the scene change the character?  It makes him realize and acknowledge the consequences of his rash actions.
•    What dimension is added to the character’s personality? that he doesn’t feel worthy of his destiny
•    What is at stake? his relationship with Marley, Marley’s life, expectations of others regarding his role in the prohecy
•    Is it immediate/urgent? there will be immediate consequences of his huge reveal

The whole worksheet was filled out.  So why didn’t that give me a full and interesting scene?

As usual when I get uber stuck, I turn to my fabulous CP pot, who usually manages to suss out the problem post haste (and make me feel like duh, that should have been perfectly obvious, why didn’t I see it?).  She took a look at the worksheet and immediately said “Where’s the rest of it?”

“What do you mean where’s the rest of it?”

“You only have the sequel part outlined.”


To refresh your memory, I’ll quote myself quoting Dwight Swain about what a scene/sequel is:

In his Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain outlines the concepts of scenes and sequels.  Now don’t think of scenes the way you usually think of scenes as a writer.  A scene in Swain’s world is “A unit of conflict lived through by the character and the reader.”  And he even goes so far as to give us this nifty little formula for scene construction.  A scene is made up of a Goal, a Conflict, and a Disaster.  Now this goal is not necessarily your big overarching goal from GMC.  Think of it as a smaller unit whose function is to provide interest and move the story forward.

On the flipside of scene, we have sequel.  “A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes.”  This unit of transition serves three purposes: “a) to translate disaster into a goal; b) to telescope reality (that is, get rid of the boring stuff and focus in on the important); and c) to control the tempo (or pacing of the story)”.  The whole point of the sequel is that the hero/ine must react to whatever the disaster was in the previous scene.  To that end, sequel is made up of a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision.

So while I had a very clear idea outlined on my worksheet for all the reaction and dilemma, I failed to have Conall making a decision, which would lead into the goal for the next scene (which, the way I do it, is the rest of a full scene as I never do sequels by themselves–at least not on purpose).  Eureka!

My dilemma here (or Conall’s dilemma actually) is that they have this impossible relationship.  The pack will never accept his human mate, particularly if he becomes Alpha, so she will always be in danger.  He doesn’t want that for her.  So he makes the decision to give her up.  That after he wins Alpha and grants her pardon, he’ll give her up and send her home–even though for him it means centuries of a half-life without her.  And once that decision is made, he has to decide how to deal with her.  And dealing with her is the root of the rest of the scene.  In this case, I went and filled out the scene qustionnaire again for the scene portion that came next:

Which of the following does the scene accomplish?
__x__   (G) Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes a character’s goal.
____   (M) Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.
__x__  (C) Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.

•    What are the three reasons for the scene?
1.  To show Conall firm in his resolve and trying to hold Marley at a distance for her own good (the idiot)
2.  To show that Marley is no fool and knows he’s lying to her
3.  To maintain and increase the emotional distance between Conall and Marley.

•    How does the scene change the character?  he gives up on the idea that they can have a future
•    What dimension is added to the character’s personality? self-sacrifice
•    What is at stake? his future with Marley vs. her safety.  His heart vs. her life.
•    Is it immediate/urgent? he’s made his decision, now he has to act on it; Marley’s right there. He doesn’t have time to dither about whether or not this is the right thing or whether or not he can. She’s there and he just has no choice but to steam ahead with the decision he just made that might have been based on lot of crazy shit that’s going on rather than any kind of sense.

Voila.  We have more conflict, which sets things up beautifully for what’s to come.  And with a quick 220 words this morning added on to yesterday’s work, I finished the scene and am ready to move forward! Yeeha!

So the next time you’re staring at a scene wondering what the heck is wrong with it and why it lacks the punch you wanted, take a good long look and see if it’s really a sequel to the scene before.  Chances are you’ve missed one of the steps on that worksheet.

And if that wasn’t it, here are some follow up questions to ask:

  • What does this scene have to do with each of your plots and subplots (as opposed to focusing on it solely from a character-driven perspective)?
  • Do you want to ask yourself why each of the people with speaking parts is present in the scene?
  • Do you want to ask yourself if you’ve allowed one character to dominate the scene such that she might as well be talking to herself?
  • Do you want to ask what is the internal state of mind of the characters in the scene and what have you done to show that?  (Movies do this really well.  Whereas we’ll pick the important character and just write out a thought that’s in their head, and some authors just give us all of everyone’s thoughts, movies have to show it by moving the camera over to another character who is making a face that shows what they’re thinking without them having to say anything.)
  • Do you want to ask how your POV character feels and if you’ve expressed emotion in the scene or merely given us a reporter’s observation?
  • Do you want to ask if there was some feeling you wanted the reader to come away with and did you accomplish that?
  • How did you intend for this scene to go, how did it come out differently, and did you leave anything out that you meant to include?

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