Friday, May 18, 2018

When Less is More: Taking Away Elements to Fix a Problem Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at how killing off characters (or taking things away from them) can fix a scene that's not working. Enjoy!

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your story is to knock someone off. I once talked about killing off characters, and that earned me this delightful tweet from @rlbelliston:
@Janice_Hardy Haha. I have a writing friend who, every time I get stuck on a scene, tells me to just kill someone off.
A funny off-the-cuff statement? Maybe, but there's truth in these words as well. Because sometimes looking at who you can get rid of is the perfect way to fix a scene that's not working.

Now, you don't actually have to kill them, but look at the scene and decide if everyone in it needs to be there. What might happen if:
  • One of the players wasn't there?
  • Someone left in the middle?
  • The protagonist was alone?
  • The protagonist was with different people?
  • The protagonist was with people who didn't like her?

(Here's another trick for when you're stuck on a scene)

And if the protagonist in the scene in question happens to be alone anyway, don't let that stop you from getting rid of people. Your protagonist might be thinking about other characters. What if...
  • You took those thoughts away?
  • You cut the elements that trigger those thoughts? 
  • You took away something in the scene the protagonist connects to another person (such as a reminder of a past love or family member)?

(Here's more on why you're having trouble ending a scene)

Why stop with people? Characters rely on all kinds of things to get them through a scene. What else might you take away from them?
  • Can they forget something they currently remember?
  • Can they lose something they use/need in that scene?
  • Can they not discover some bit of information? 
  • Can you take away their "victory" and have them lose in stead of win? 
  • Can something break?
  • Can they not have enough of something they need?
  • Can they have too much and be forced to get rid of some of it?

(Here's more on how saying "no" can fix a stuck scene)

Taking things away from your protagonist forces you (and them) to re-evaluate the scene and what's available to solve the scene problem. It might turn out that nothing can be taken away (and that's fine) and the solution lies elsewhere, but you might discover less really is more and send the scene in a new direction.

Do you ever take things away from your protagonist? Are there any scenes you're currently working on that might benefit from losing something in it?

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. What an interesting concept. I usually add more elements when a scene is stalled. It honestly never occurred to me that removing thigns could work as a catalyst. Thank you, Janice.

  2. Oh, yeah. I do this often. It's fairly normal for me to know a scene's wrong and to be stuck with it until I approach it from the perspective:

    • Who or what seems to be sending the scene off-course?
    • Who and what has to be there?
    • Who and what is optional?
    • Who and what is utterly unnecessary?

    Notice the "seems" in that first question. It's not unusual answers to both the first and last questions be enough to fix a scene, though I can think of one right now that I'll be revising soon, wherein I'll probably need to dispose of some optional components, too, just to make the scene manageable.

    I ask the "who and what" questions because sometimes, I'll run into a situation wherein one of the "needs" is "a villain", while the specific villainous character is what's screwing up a scene. So then I have to ask "Who else could be in this scene instead?"

    All that to say, this is quite a handy concept! Not necessarily intuitive, but useful. :)

  3. I've cut whole scenes before that weren't really necessary but not tried this for a scene not working. I'll have to try it when I get stuck next time. Thanks for the suggestions.

  4. My 'go-to' question is "WHY?" Once I know why a character is doing something, or why the scene is necessary, I can usually whittle down the excess. Too many times, I find the answer is, "because this is such brilliant prose/dialogue" which definitely means it needs to go.

    Terry's Place

  5. My poor protagonist... I take so many things away from him as it is. I'm not sure he'd survive me taking anything more away from him.

    -- Jo Eberhardt

  6. I usually just cut a whole scene it it's not working. Next time I will try your tips!

  7. I must admit I went through a phase where I added a fight scene (physical or verbal) if my story started to drag. But I outline now, so the problem doesn't come up.
    Thanks for the great post!

  8. I've been giving thought to this over the last few days. I tend to overcomplicate my longer fiction, possibly as a result of running too short. Everyone always said things like "Just add more story!" or "Just add more description." But I tend to add a lot of junk. Doesn't look like junk, and isn't anything that is typical of what writers overwrite (meaning reading craft books is unhelpful). So in my revision, I'm identifying three important things in the scene and anything else needs to be evaluated.

  9. Jo, most welcome. Adding is my first reaction, too, but I've noticed plenty of times when I get sick of it and just get rid of the stuff that's giving me a problem, hehe. Works more often than not.

    Carradee, great questions, even if the scene IS working. Very useful indeed. Thanks!

    Natalie, most welcome. Sometimes cutting the whole scene is best, but it's nice to have options.

    Terry, "why" is my editor's favorite question too, and I learned that "because I said so" doesn't work either :)

    Jo E, LOL I know that feeling.

    Amanda, that's often the way to fix it, sometimes there's something there we really want to keep. Just one more tool for the toolbox.

    Lexa, outlines stop a lot of problems before they happen. I've heard somewhere throwing in a man with a gun works too (one of those classic author guys said it but I forget who right now)

    Linda, I think I get what you mean. It's all good story stuff, but it winds up being too much and "junky" and doesn't serve the story. I've found things get junky like that when I have too many goals in one scene. Even if the main goal is to do X, but I try to slip in other concerns to layer it up and "add more story" as they say. (just killed a lot of a chapter for that reason yesterday). Looking at my narrative focus helps here. What am I trying to do/show/say. Then add in only the things that help/complicate/add tension to that.

  10. Wow, there is a lot of good advice here. I will definitely try to remember it all so I can try the things out. Thanks Janice and everyone who commented.