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Friday, May 11

Oh, What Now? Fixing a Stalled Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's no secret I love doing terrible things to my characters. "How can this go wrong?" is one of my favorite writing techniques. But believe it or not, sometimes having things go wrong all the time isn't the best thing for your story. Sometimes it's a good idea to step back and ask...

Am I making the story better, or just creating an obstacle course for my protagonist?

Things going wrong is great, but if nothing is made worse overall (and thus raise the stakes), it might not do anything to advance your story. Look at your manuscript. Do you have passages that are exciting, but you've gotten feedback like, "This is all good stuff, but I feel like the story isn't going anywhere." or "What's the point of all this? It's starting to feel episodic."
If so, you might be causing unnecessary trouble.

Fixing a Stalled Scene

Do a Goal Check

Look at your character's goals. Are they actively trying to do something to solve their big story problem, or is this just one more tiny step in the plot? Steps are good, but too many can send the story off track and make it feel aimless. How many steps removed from the main plot if this scene? If it's more than three or four, you might be too far from the core conflict. Yes, you have a goal driving the scene, but achieving it doesn't actually matter to the bigger story. So the scene flounders.

Add a Conflict Conundrum

What's the conflict in this scene? Is any thing or any one in the way of your protagonist getting what they want? Lack of conflict is another common culprit in scenes that aren't working. Lack of conflict means a lack of stakes, because there no sense that the hero will fail. What can you do to add conflict back into the scene? Who or what can be between the protagonist and their goal?

Raise the Stakes

If the stakes aren't going up even though things are going wrong, that's a big red flag that it's just extra trouble and not a real plot obstacle. How can this problem make the risk higher? Personal risks to the protagonist are usually best, but you can also make things worse for another character if they're important to the protagonist. Look at internal and external goals, and think down the line as well as immediate problems.

Mix and Match Scenes

Can this problem be combined with another one that does raise the stakes? Multiple things going wrong at once can make for some gripping scenes, and allows you to layer plot and add depth through inner conflict. One external problem might work well with an internal problem and turn a good scene into a wow scene.

Hack and Slash Scenes

Can the scene be cut? Trimming the scene might pick up the pace and get you to the important plot elements faster. If you can't cut the scene, ask why you can't? That will give you an idea of what really matters in that scene, and you can either use that to fix the scene or find a way to combine scenes. Or find a way to make the scene work overall.

There's a difference between making things worse and making bad things happen. If your trouble enhances the overall story, you're on the right track. If all it does is delay the plot, it can probably go. Because the last thing you want, is a reader rolling their eyes and thinking, "Oh, come on."

Do you have any stalled scenes right now? Have you looked at the goals and the stakes? What about the conflict?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Good point. Thanks for posting. I tend to not put enough "go wrong" in mine LOL

  2. I just wanted to tell you how wonderful your blog is! Whenever I feel burnt out on writing, I just mosey over here and read your archives. Full of wonderful information that writers of all skills can use.

    Thank you so much for keeping this wonderful blog!

  3. Great reminders for revising and even for first drafts.

  4. Good post. I've been doing some of the hacking and slashing lately and the mixing. This is all great advice for me in the stage of revisions I'm at. Thanks.

  5. This is why I love scene writing. It makes everything so much simpler. With my YA manuscript topping, ah, 170,000 words, I'll need to cut everything I possibly can...

    So thanks. A lot. ^.^

  6. Thanks guys! 170K? Eek Kim, you have your work cut out for you :) Good luck!

  7. @Kim - you sure you don't have two or three books, there?

    @Janice Hardy - I love how you can pinpoint what you're doing in revisions. I was mixing & mashing while writing my UF's first draft, but I wouldn't have thought to identify what I was doing.

    Now, to eye everything and make sure stakes are [i]increasing[/i] with each scene…

  8. Just letting you know that every time you do a new post, I make a point to go over your old blog posts in the archives. Very good stuff!

  9. Thanks Shannon! Soon as I get some time I plan to organize those old posts and make things easier to find. I want to make some kind of contents page where someone looking for certain topics can find relevant posts.

  10. Cameron Belle9/26/2010 7:26 PM

    Helpful advice! I'm reminded of a concept I learned from one of my favorite writing advice books, "Don't confuse delay with complication." Delay just, well, delays the protag's progress toward his/her goal. Complication makes it that much harder. The former can almost always be slashed. The latter is the guts of good conflict.

  11. Excellent points!! I tend to have an overload of bad things happening and then when I edit, have to cut down on that.

  12. So, I have a question... I have a scene that I've been feeling in my gut is just too long/too slow. Its a "thawing of the ice" between the male and female protagonists.
    It's not action, but its progress towards the goal of being on the same team. There is the beginning of romance, but not anything to get "excited" about.

    How, in relationship developing scenes, can you give it more punch without having them spill their guts in between punches from the bad guys? ;) I'm having a hard time finding the sweet spot.

  13. Amelia, too slow usually indicates there's nothing the reader wants to know or see happen next. They don't "care." You might try looking for ways to make them care. Perhaps information the reader might be wondering about, or a puzzle they want an answer to.

    Or, you can make the banter between the characters fun and entertaining, so the reader is enjoying watching these two verbally spar. They'll want to see who might get the better of whom. Maybe if they need to end up on the same team, you can craft it so the reader wants to see if one can persuade the other and what it will take.

    Think about your favorite shows where the plot is so formula and obvious you don't wonder how it will turn out, but you just love watching the interplay between the characters. (cop shows in all forms are good examples here) Look for ways to bring that interplay to your characters.

    You can also try mixing the interplay scenes with smaller goals so they have to do something while they banter. It might not be a plot-advancing goal, but the action itself advances the character arcs.

  14. I've been wrangling with a plot that seems to offer me infinite chances for things to go wrong. In draft, I'm letting all the mess happen, but I sense in revision I'll need to fiddle with it. Too many disasters in a row, with no reversals from bad to good, and a story becomes a farce. I think Robert McKee's _Story_ talks about audiences accepting only three positive-ending scenes or three negative-ending scenes in a row before a reversal is needed, or you lose them.

  15. I've got some revisions to do for a WiP and this information will be very helpful in addressing moments that may have action but no forward movement of the story. Thank you.

  16. I have a habit of being nice to my characters (do unto others...) which does stall the pace a little, but I can't just be mean to them, the plot needs to thicken.
    So, as usual Janice, you're spot-on! Your comment about making things worse versus making bad things happen makes perfect sense. I guess the latter is a bit like deus-ex-machina in reverse, and just as frustrating.

    (Damn, I can't have aliens come out of nowhere and kidnap my MC's grandmother in he middle of my historical romance!)

  17. Thanks Janice! I appreciate your comments. This is all good stuff. I need someone to clarify the structure so I can see what is the excess ornamentation. This is great, thank you!

  18. Laurel, interesting. I hadn't heard that formula before. Makes sense though, three is a pretty solid pattern for all things. Good luck with that draft! Hope the good spots shine through so revising is easy.

    Angela, most welcome, and best of luck! Let me know how it goes.

    Jo-Ann, nice writers do have it harder (grin). Us mean ones have the opposite problem--too nasty all the time. But, lay the groundwork for those alines and you're golden :)

    Amelia, glad it helped!

  19. I've discovered that, for me, when a scene stalls, I'm probably approaching it wrongly. I might be misunderstanding the narrator, trying to have the wrong thing happen, having the right thing happen but for the wrong reasons, making a side character say a line that's OOC—but something is wrong.

    Once I figure out what's wrong, I can keep going.

    I'm still new enough at writing that I'm not all that efficient at getting myself unstuck. I'll check this post next time I do to start compiling my personal "checklist for when I'm stuck".


  20. Carradee, I think making a checklist of personal things to check when you're stuck is a great idea. We all have are own blind spots and bad habits, and no one else can make a list for us :)

  21. I'm grateful you compiled all these posts about stalled stories together. I'm going to attempt a rewrite of a scene from another character's perspective. Even though the main action of the scene doesn't focus on them, that is where the conflict is...the character who the scene is "about" is getting what he wants, but the conflict lies with this other character. Thanks for your thoughts. :)

  22. My fantasy story is around 100k words. I try hard not to add scenes like you talked about. But, now that I think about it I'd better go through the chapters and check.

    Might as well, this pairs well with another article I read that talks about putting in to many action scenes, over injuring the characters as a convenient way to move the plot forward. As too much of that and readers stop caring. I got rid if one scene that was so over the tip cruel and turned one of the antaganists into a card carrying baddy. - embarrassed -

    This is great, bookmarking this.