Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Tip for Getting Through Hard-to-Write Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Even when a draft is going well, there’s bound to be at least one scene in a novel that gives us trouble. Maybe we’re not sure how it unfolds, or we’re missing a key emotional component, or it might even be that we’re not ready to write it or just don’t want to deal with whatever the scene covers right now.

When this happens, we usually get stuck. It might feel like writer’s block, but it’s not—it’s just a hard-to-write scene.

This happened to me recently, though it was more like four chapters (and entire story-structure turning point) than a single scene. These chapters cover the Dark Moment and launch act three, and there’s a lot of heavy, emotional stuff going on. The problem, is that I have a lot of stuff going on in my own life, so I flat out didn’t feel up to plunging myself into all that heartbreak and soul searching to do these chapters justice.

So I didn’t. Instead, I blitzed past it.

(Here’s more on writing when you don’t feel like writing)

Write the Parts You Know

When faced with a sticking point in your writing, it’s helpful to just write the elements you can and move on. They won’t be the best scenes, and they’ll need work, but at least they’ll be down on paper and you can fix them later.

I’ve spoken before about the value of placeholder words before, and this trick is an extension of that. When it was time to “get all emotional” in the scene, I made a note and moved on. I described what I’d write later, but I didn’t dwell on it. I wrote what I knew, didn’t care if it was under-developed, and got through it.

For example, I have four chapters that are almost entirely dialogue, since I knew what the conversations in those chapters had to cover. A lot of information is revealed, multiple plotlines converge, and there’s story-driving issues for the characters to discuss and work out. Scattered throughout the scenes are notes in brackets that say things such as [Jayan reacts] or [Jayan reflects] that I’ll flesh out when I’m ready.

These scenes are probably half the size they’ll be by the time I’m finished, but for now, they’re enough to get past this sticking point and get the manuscript done.

(Here’s more on writing with emotional layers)

Leave Yourself Emotional Clues

While notes are useful, I tagged the dialogue with emotional clues as well—such as “He frowned” to remind myself that the character was either sad or displeased, or “she huffed” to denote annoyance or frustration, “she scoffed” to show disbelief and doubt, and so on. There’s not enough in those simple clues to flesh out the scene or the characters, but it’s enough to remind me what emotional notes I want to hit during the next drafting pass. It’s also useful for keeping my speakers straight, as a scene of mostly dialogue can get confusing rather quickly, especially if you have more than two characters in it. Just make sure you go back and fix them, or you'll wind up with a lot of emotionally stunted sentences.

Adapt the Scene to Suit Your Current Writing Needs

For my sticking point, I chose dialogue, but you can use whatever aspect of the story you’re ready to write. If you’re solid on how the stage direction and action unfolds, write that and leave notes for the dialogue instead. If you know exactly what the internalization is, focus on that and minimize the rest. There’s nothing wrong with writing [Bob fights off the zombies and winds up at the old lighthouse] if you’re not ready to write that scene yet, but you know what happens and can write it when he gets there.

Sometimes our scenes pour from our heads to the page so fast we can barely keep up, but other times every word is a struggle. On the struggle days, don’t force it if it’s not working, Work around it the best you can and return to that scene when you have the fortitude and determination to finish it.

Do you leave note or quickly sketch out a scene when you get stuck? How you you deal with tough scenes?

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. Excellent post. For myself, I find that the parts where I am stuck have one of three root causes: I don't really know what happens next, I know where I want to go but don't know how to get there, or I am completely bored with the scene. As you suggest, using placeholders or writing in outline form help me in the first case. Brainstorming, or freewriting, get me through the second. As for the third, I've learned if I'm too bored to write a scene then it's time to rethink because the readers will be bored as well. Usually, I discover a better direction for the plot and soon find myself unstuck. Thanks for the daily inspiration and tips. Your blog is invaluable to my creative practice.

    1. I could have written your comment. That's pretty much me as well. I don't freewrite, I discuss scenes with my writer pals we work it out. Usually just talking through it and having them ask me questions shakes the scene loose and I figure out what to do with it.

  2. Thanks for this. It's something I've done before, but seem to forget every time I start a new story. :) At the moment I'm writing pieces of a fight scene with a lot of skips because the action is muddled in my head and I'm just trying to get down why the outcome is important and how the fight pushes the plot forward, until I can clear up exactly how things went down.

    1. I leave reminder post-its on my monitor for things like that. :) It works fairly well.

      What helped me with a fight scene years ago, was to use the little pewter figures from my gaming group (but any small items would work, even M&Ms), and stages out the fight. I'd move the figures and make notes, or even write the scene. It took longer, but I knew where everyone was and how the mechanics worked out.

  3. How lucky that I should read this as I myself am stuck on the opening of my third act. I've always used placeholder words and phrases to keep me from derailing myself with research, but I really like the idea of an "emotional outline/sketch" that lays in the intent without fussing over the content. And I always forget (or don't give enough credit to) that WRITING through the block is always better than trying to THINK your way through the block.

    1. Oooo. I love that. "writing through the block..." Can I quote you?

    2. It's always worked for me :) In the worst cases, I'll skip the scene entirely and come back later. But that doesn't happen all that often. Maybe once scene per nook.