Friday, March 1
Telling Yourself to Show: How to Identify Flat Scenes
I wrote a scene for Darkfall where my characters were sitting at a table talking about stuff. Now, from a technical standpoint, there wasn't anything wrong with this scene. My protagonist Nya had a goal for what she needed to do at that table, and there were stakes if she failed. This led to another scene where Nya was talking to someone else in another room, gathering more information about things important to the story. It all moved the plot along.
But something felt off.
Like I always do when something doesn't feel right (or is that write?) I walked away and let the brain think about it. And then it hit me.
I was telling myself the scenes I should have been showing.
In both scenes, a character was relaying information to Nya. It was important information, but there was a bit of summary to it because it all happened off screen to other characters. I was literally having a character "tell" the story to my protagonist. It didn't matter that what they were saying caused Nya trouble and she had to deal with a mess it made. Plot was happening without her. Worse, that plot influenced her decisions on what to do next, and she wasn't even there to see it.
Writing this scene was my brain's way of figuring out what I needed to do to revise that section of the book, and as Nya ran around talking to folks, I got to hear what was going on elsewhere that she could get involved in. Once I knew, it was easy to scrap that whole chapter and go back and write one where Nya is actively doing something that allows her to experience what the other character was telling her about.
The scene was ten times better because my protag was protagging. Her actions brought about plot. She wasn't waiting for it to come to her anymore so she could act on it.
I don't think I'm alone in this. A common comment I make when I critique first drafts is:
"Love to see this dramatized."
This happens when something really cool in the story is being told to me by another character or summarized by the narrator. Usually it's something that happened between two scenes that influenced the protagonist's decisions at that point, but the author didn't feel it was necessary to show the whole scene.
There's nothing wrong with a summary or an explanation scene if that's what the story calls for, but sometimes the wrong scene is being shown and there's something mentioned in that summary that has more inherent conflict and is far more compelling. It's like the author wants to tell the reader something significant happened to affect the protagonist, but not do a full blown scene about it.
Take a peek at your draft, especially those "something's not right" sections. Ask yourself...
1. Am I summarizing something that would make a compelling scene if I dramatized it?
2. Are other characters relaying information to my protagonist that would be more interesting if my protagonist had been the one to discover it?
3. Do I have a lot of scenes where my protagonist is learning plot-driving information by talking to people she knows? (such as, she has other folks "doing the work" to uncover plot details and she's hearing reports)
4. Am I glossing over something that has a strong influence on my protagonist's decisions in another scene?
Sometimes you'll spot these as you write, but many will be things you'll see after the draft is done. Keep your eyes open, but don't feel you have to second guess yourself every time you summarize or have a character tell a story. Revisions are great times to take a more objective look at a story. You're able to see the entire plot and know what it needs.
Not every summary or exchange of information needs to be dramatized, but sometimes, you might just find the perfect scene is one you already told yourself about.
Do you ever go back and flesh out scenes during a first draft?