Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The 3 Minute Scene Fix

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Getting stuck on a scene isn't just frustrating, it can throw off your whole writing session. Laurence MacNaughton shares an easy three-minute fix for getting that scene back on track.

Writing good fiction takes time. But that doesn't mean you have to spend endless hours agonizing over a scene that's just not working. In most cases, you can fix a troublesome scene in just three minutes.

All you need is a kitchen timer and the willingness to brainstorm as fast as you can.

Set your timer for one minute, and answer the first question below. Don't stop to think, because you don't have time for that. Just jot down as many answers as you can possibly think of. Keep going until the timer beeps. Then move onto the next question.

Ready? Here we go.

1. What does your character want right now?

If you look closely at a problem scene, you'll probably find that things have started to break down around the point-of-view character's motivation.

Often, when a scene goes off the rails, it's because the author is trying to force the character down a course of action that simply hasn't been supported by the rest of the story.

(Or, worse, the character has no motivation at all, and is just sort of loitering around, waiting for the story to happen.)

How do you fix this problem? Simple.

Put yourself in the character's shoes. Think about where your character is right now, emotionally. Think about what's happened to them so far. Think about the problems they have. What do they want most right now?

Spend 60 seconds writing down everything you can think of. Chances are, they want a whole list of things. But the biggest, most important answer will probably jump right out at you.

(Here's more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)

2. What stands between your character and what they want?

Now that you have an idea for your character's motivation, it's time to figure out how they might go about getting it.

What will they do to get what they want? How will they approach the situation? What's their plan?

And even more important, what's in the way?

Spend 60 seconds writing down all of the obstacles that could stand between your character and what they want. Each one of these obstacles represents a possible source of conflict.

Conflict is the main part of every scene. If it's lacking, then all you need to fix your scene is one really good obstacle. 

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts)

3. How could things get worse?

What could go wrong for this character if they do nothing?

In other words, what's the penalty for doing nothing? If they don't try to overcome this obstacle right now in an attempt to achieve their goal, how will that make things even more difficult?

Now consider the obstacles you brainstormed a minute ago. What sort of trouble could these obstacles make for the character if things go badly?

What sort of threats does the character face? How could things get worse? What's the penalty for failure?

Spend 60 seconds brainstorming all of the ways that their problems could get bigger. This might be quite a long list, by the way. That's okay. As long as you're on a roll, feel free to keep brainstorming. 

(Here's more on Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

Use your answers to fix your scene.

Now it's time to go back to your scene and put all of your hard-won ideas to work.

At the very start of the scene, tell the reader exactly what this character wants to achieve here, and why. Don't hide it. Make that goal crystal clear.

Next, have your character go after this goal, and let them run smack up against one or more obstacles. Make it a real struggle to overcome these obstacles. In fact, once they finally do overcome these obstacles (or fail to), your scene is over.

Throughout the scene, clue in the reader to how badly things could get. Use all of your writerly tricks. Have the character worry about how everything could go sideways. Use foreshadowing to hint at how this could go horribly wrong. Show something terrible happening to another character, and make the reader worry that the main character will be next.

Now, take a deep breath and set that timer.

Remember, there are no wrong answers here. Give yourself permission to write down absolutely everything that comes to mind. Don't evaluate. Don't criticize. Just brainstorm.

Maybe some of your ideas won't be so great. That's okay. Because all you need is one good idea, and you're back on track. You can throw out the rest.

And that one good idea is worth everything.

Try it, and let me know how it went. Do you have any questions? Leave me a comment or contact me on my author website at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

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  1. What a helpful post! I'm going to save this one to refer back to.