I'm blessed with two amazing (and chatty) critique partners. We regularly talk over scenes and ideas for our books, and recently, I had one of those great discussions that helped me solidify something in my current novel. Something that occurred only because I had to sell the idea to another person. It was a solution to a problem I probably wouldn't have even known I had until I sent the novel out for critique.
Talking through that scene saved me a ton of time and frustration.
It's not unusual when we write/plan/outline our stories, to write down details that carry a lot more weight in our heads than they do on paper. We know a detail is important, even if we can't say precisely why. Maybe we haven't figured it out yet, maybe we have an inkling that still needs to be developed, maybe we just haven't found the right words to describe it yet. Or maybe, it's not actually clear at all and just feels that way because we haven't spent time trying to articulate it.
Then when we get to that scene, we hit a wall. Or it doesn't work at all. Or worse--it looks fine and we get slammed with comments in a critique and have no idea what we're going to do to fix it.
This is where talking out a scene with a friend can be pure gold. Being forced to give words to those ideas helps clarify them in your head.
(More on brainstorming ideas here)
Let's say I had a conversation like this:
WRITER: So this is the scene were Bob has to decide if he can trust the new guy, Maurice, or not. Maurice has done some shady things, but nothing too bad to set off any red flags.
FRIEND: Is Bob already suspicious?
WRITER: Not really, he just doesn't know if he can trust him or not, and he needs to be unsure about Maurice's motives or he won't put the "just in case" plan into action. That has to happen for Sally to get caught up in the nets.
FRIEND: Yeah, but wouldn't any shady behavior make Bob wary? And if he's wary, he wouldn't trust him on this mission anyway, right?
WRITER: True, but Maurice really needs to be there and be a potential threat.
FRIEND: I don't know. Why trust Maurice this long, then turn on him now? He'd either need a reason to trust him, or be so stuck he had no choice but to trust him.
WRITER: (Scratching her head because she doesn't know why, but knows the plot needs this to work and it made sense to her before she poked at it) Maybe Maurice has done something to gain Bob's trust? He did risk his neck to save Jane from that pack of zombies a few scenes back. (Things start to click into place) And he also had reasonable excuses for some of the shady things Bob saw him do. His methods were a little unusual, but so far his heart has always seemed to be in the right place. He kinda trusts him, just not totally.
FRIEND: (makes a face) I'm still not sure why he'd suddenly start questioning the guy.
WRITER: (final piece clicks into place) Because Bob finds proof that Maurice lied to him about why he was there when Jane almost got eaten! So now he's questioning everything Maurice has ever said.
FRIEND: That I can buy. What proof and where does he find it?
Obviously a good critique partner is key to these discussions, because you want someone who will ask you tough questions and force you to be specific about your answers. You want them to push you on why a character would do or think something, and what specifically they do about it. They won't let you take the easy way out if something doesn't sit right.
(More on things to think about while brainstorming here)
Let's say I'd written the above scene without discussing it with a friend first. It's pretty clear that I wasn't sure about Bob's motivations or what specifics were causing the problems between him and Maurice. I wasn't even sure there was a real problem with Maurice. I can easily see where I'd feel everything was working plotwise, write the scene, then get hit with comments like this in a critique:
I don't understand why Bob suddenly gets suspicious of Maurice.Who knows how far off the mark it might have turned out. But a short conversation let me spot the trouble areas before I wrote them.
Bob's change of heart here feels contrived.
It's so obvious Maurice is up to something, so why isn't Bob taking the treat more seriously?
Naturally, not every scene needs to be talked through, and don't feel you have to do this if it doesn't feel right to you. But if other brainstorming or outlining techniques haven't worked, this could be an option. I have a writer pal who talks through every scene in her book before she writes it. She has the cleanest first drafts of anyone I know.
I like talking through plot points myself. The bare bones, the critical turning points and elements of a chapter that give the story its backbone. This allows me to build a solid story foundation and still maintain spontaneity in the actual writing.
I've found talking through a scene an invaluable tool during the outlining stage, because I can figure things out before I write a single word. I can also get those first ideas out there to make way for the more original ones. Plus, there's just something about putting words on paper than makes them feel permanent and harder to change. Verbal ideas are so much easier to cast aside if they're not working.
(More on plotting a novel conceptually here)
Whatever your writing or editing process is, next time you're not sure about a scene, try talking it through with a friend. You might find it opens up a whole new way of thinking about your writing.
Do you talk through scenes with friends? What do you find valuable about it (or why wouldn't you do it)?