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Wednesday, January 18

It's Alive! Poking Dead Scenes With A Stick, Part Two

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week we talked about getting rid of scenes that weren't working for you, so today, let's talk about bringing a dead scene back to life.

If you've decided to keep a dead scene, then there's something about that scene that matters to the story and can't be moved any other place. Or, you just really love it and want to find a way to make it work. Either way, the solution is the same.

Make that scene do more things for the story.

Yeah, I know, easy to say, hard to do. But here are some things you can try:

1. Analyze the scene

  • What is your protag doing?
  • Where does this scene take place (setting)?
  • Who else is in the scene?
  • Where structurally does this scene take place (act one, midpoint, act two, etc)?
  • What happens right before this scene?
  • What happens right after this scene?
  • What's your theme?
  • What are the stakes? 

2. Look for ways to add more layers to the scene.
Using your answers to the above questions, ask yourself...

What is your protag doing?
How might their actions affect another aspect of the story? Can this make something worse? Be the result of a prior mistake? Can they be conflicted over this action in any way? Look for ways to connect what they're doing back to something else so this action has a greater affect of the story in some way. Can this action affect the internal conflict? Illustrated a weakness or flaw?

Where does this scene take place (setting)?
Can the setting be changed to make what's happening more interesting? Is there anything inherently dangerous or troublesome about the setting that can affect what's going on in the scene? Can the setting reflect your theme? Can it help characterize some aspect of your protag or another character? Can it provide any foreshadowing? (characters use a skill here they'll need later on, or make a mistake that aids them in making a future right choice)

Who else is in the scene?
Is there anything a secondary character can do to affect the plot, internal conflict, or character arc of the protag? Is this a good spot to deepen a secondary character? Can a secondary character have a conflicting opinion about what's going on to provide more conflict and tension? Can you add another character and bring in another layer? Take out a character to change the dynamic?

Where structurally does this scene take place (act one, midpoint, act two, etc)?
Are there any details than can be added to this scene to lay groundwork for a future scene? Are there any earlier scenes that suggested a possible danger that could occur in this scene? Can this scene make a major plot point worse?

What happens right before this scene?
Is there anything that can be continued into the dead scene? Any problems or comments that can be expanded on?

What happens right after this scene?
Is there anything that can be foreshadowed by the actions in the dead scene? Is there a choice that can be affected in a negative way? A positive way? Are there any characters that can be seen or introduced earlier?

What's your theme?
Are there any ways your theme can be explored or illustrated by what's happening in this scene? Can the protag have an epiphany regarding the theme or their problems? Can they have a setback? Can this scene illustrate the flaw the protag has to overcome?

What are the stakes?
Can the stakes be made higher? More personal? Can they cause trouble elsewhere in the story? Can actions here make the stakes in another scene more dire?

Not everything here will apply to all scenes of course, but if you can find two or three things that your dead scene can do, you can probably salvage it. Look especially at the smaller, throwaway comments made throughout the book. I've often found a small detail that worked as a foreshadowing moment and could be developed into more later. If the larger pieces of the story aren't helping, don't be afraid to look at the smaller ones. You might just find your missing piece to bring that scene back to life.

What scenes are you struggling with right now? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Thank you, and just in the nick of time. I'm mid-point in the final act, just trying to tie-up the loose ends of plot/sub-plot overlap. I'm sitting here just looking at the page. I know I only need to drag another 5,000 words out of my tiny head and get them down and I'm first draft complete (my first novel).

    Shouldn't I be more excited?

  2. I'm glad you linked back to the post on dead scenes. I don't know how I missed it the first time! I have a scene in desperate need of testing. :)

  3. Ooooo this IS timely!

    I was thinking too, that it wouldn't hurt to ask these questions about scenes that aren't quite dead, but might be lackluster. It's a great way to make sure all the pieces fit.

    Auburnville: When I finished my first novel (and just about every one afterwards) I didn't feel super excited at the end. The most I could muster up was a vague sense of completion, like when you finish your house chores for the day.

    It's normal. Maybe you're just sick of the book or you're at that place where you realize that yes, the first draft is almost done, but you still have so much work ahead of you.

    Whatever the case may be, congrats! It's a big accomplishment and you should still try to celebrate ;)

  4. Auburnville, not necessarily :) It always takes me forever to get those last few chapters done. I drag my feet, write bits at a time. It's not uncommon, actually. Some folks delay because they hate the idea of the book they love being over, others know the revisions are incoming and they hate that part. Others know no matter they write the ending will need to be rewritten, so it can feel like a chore (this is me).

    You're not alone, and it's perfectly normal :)

    Chicory, oh good, glad it helped. That's exactly why I try to link back when I mention an older post topic.

    Elizabeth, absolutely. They can be just as useful for planning as revising.