I was working on a scene in my novel-in-progress this week that wasn’t going anywhere. It was flat, dull, lifeless. Everything was happening in the scene that I wanted to happen, but it was just sort of sat there.
I dove in to try to fix it, and realized that the way I approached the fix is a tool many of you could put in your author’s toolkit, too. It starts with the awareness that a scene is the smallest unit of story.
What does that mean?
First you have to know that a story is about change. At the very heart of it, when you strip everything else away, that’s all it is – a way of tracing a change in someone. They started out as one thing and ended up another.
- They were a person who didn’t believe in love and ended up in love.
- They were a person who took their mother for granted and ended up taking everyone else for granted, too.
- They were a person who never felt heard and thought the way to being heard was to become an actress and realized that they were wrong.
The change can be big and dramatic or small and nuanced, but if you don’t have change, you don’t have story. (Note that this definition of story applies to memoir, too. And actually it applies to non-fiction of every kind but the change is taking place in the reader themselves, not the characters on the page. They go from not knowing how to lose weight to having a plan for healthy eating. They go from not understanding how to do well as a manager to being a good manager.)
Every scene of your story is a tiny slice of that arc of change. Therefore in every scene, something has to change.
In the scene I was working on, I brought one character on stage to make the other doubt her ability to write the story she has to write. She is a TV writer named Ruby and she is my protagonist. She is up against a pressing and very emotionally resonant deadline because her writing partner, who is her lover and her best friend, has been in a terrible accident. They were days away from doing an 11th hour rewrite on the finale of their hit TV show, and she doubts her ability to write without him. The guy I brought on stage to provoke her is a big movie producer named Jason, and he was the guy who hired her partner but did not hire her.
I thought I had the ingredients for a great scene because here is an antagonist, a truth-teller, someone who can rattle Ruby.
But the scene was flat because although it provided an external bit of “drama” it didn’t allow Ruby to move, to grow, to react. There was no consequence to her action – no dominos falling against each other. Nothing, in other words, was changing. So I knew I had to make something happen.
I dove back into the scene and here's what I asked myself:
What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause Ruby to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
The answer was that Ruby would learn something about Henry from Jason that she didn’t know – something worse than what she imagined had happened, something that would give her no choice but to take some kind of action. (And action, remember, can be a decision, a shift in mindset, a commitment… it doesn’t just have to be a sword-fight or meteors falling on Kansas.)
No sooner has I asked the question, then the answer came to me: Ruby would go into the scene believing that Jason was the bad guy – he had hired Henry without Ruby. In the midst of the scene, Jason would tell her that, in fact, Henry had applied for the job. He had wanted to write without Ruby. It had been his idea. Ruby would exit the scene knowing that Henry had taken action to write without her – which would make her angry enough to want to prove to him and to herself and to the whole world that she could write without him. So instead of hemming and hawing and doubting, now she’s on fire.
Boom! Story deepened by a mile, scene made resonant, story moved forward.
Ask yourself the same questions of every scene you write -- What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause my protagonist to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
Odds are good this will shake out an answer that will move your story forward.
To read the revised scene CLICK HERE