Thursday, January 27, 2011
Common Error in Scenes, Part 1
Just because you know the component parts of a scene, doesn’t mean they can’t go terribly wrong. Sometimes we know the scene isn’t working, but we don’t know why. So of course we can’t fix it.
According to Jack M. Bickham in his wonderful Writer’s Digest Book, Scene & Structure, there are at least fourteen common errors writers can fall into when crafting scenes. And I’ve probably made them all. The good part is if you know the errors, you can easily correct them.
1. Too many people in the scene.
Of course the most obvious fix is to take out some of the people! If possible leave only two characters. During a confrontation it’s best to have only two go head to head. More people than two can be a distraction, and split the focus of the reader.
If you absolutely must have others in a scene, then try to lead them to another part of the room, have them answer a phone call or make them as invisible as you can. The scene will be easier to write with just two people and it’ll be much more intense and dramatic. You won’t have to worry about a secondary character butting into the conversation. You won’t have to describe him etc. If necessary be rude and tell him to disappear. He can’t talk back to you since you’re the boss.
2. Circularity of argument.
If you’ve ever been around kids, this will ring a bell. “Did not!”—“Did so!”—“Did not!” These endless arguments never go anywhere. Ask any mother or kindergarten teacher. So how do you keep two characters from going around and around in a conflict over an important issue?
You can make sure the viewpoint character repeats his scene goal from time to time. Once you remind the reader where the focus of the argument is, you can argue about other, but related issues.
For example, if your hero is selling encyclopedias to a teacher, he might have to defend door-to-door salesmen in general or the fact that encyclopedias don’t really go out of date from year to year. This broadens the issue without letting it spin into a circle. Just make sure the reader doesn’t forget the central focus of the scene. And as the writer, make sure you don’t forget it either!
3. Unwanted interruptions.
Don’t let an unwanted phone call or a knock on the door interrupt the scene. Unless these interruptions play a direct and dramatic role in the development of the conflict, don’t let them happen. They can really frustrate the reader just when things are heating up and getting interesting.
4. Getting off the track.
Sometimes one or more side issues grab center stage in your scene and you wander off track. I’m guilty of this. But with my latest manuscript I’ve started to think through each scene before I start writing. I need more than a vague idea of where I’m going or I end up in the wrong place. So I write out my Goal, Motivation, Conflict and Disaster before I begin. It helps me clarify my ideas which can be kind of fuzzy. I hope I’ll have less rewriting to do with this information in front of me.
At the very least make sure you’ve stated your scene goal clearly and succinctly and refer to it as you’re writing your scene. Have your protagonist, or even the antagonist, repeat the goal so the reader won’t forget either.
5. Inadvertent summary.
Sometimes writers forget that the scene needs to be developed on a moment by moment, stimulus-response basis. If a scene is running too long or if the author wants to get to the good part quicker, the temptation is to summarize. Instead, start the scene closer to the argument or conflict and you’ll get to it sooner. Just don’t write the summarized part. I’m also guilty of this one.
6. Loss of viewpoint.
Remember you should restrict the viewpoint in any scene to one character. A few authors can get away with head hopping, but most of us can’t. I suggest you don’t even try. And why would you want to? A scene is much more effective if we’re seeing everything through one person’s perspective. You want your reader to identify with just one character per scene and that won’t happen as easily if you hop from head to head.
7. Forgotten scene goal.
This relates closely to getting off track. In this case not only the reader forgets the goal, but the character does as well. This is where the disaster doesn’t answer the scene question. For example:
Scene goal—Joe wants to convince Susan to marry him.
Disaster—Susan gets angry because Joe mentions Anne.
At the end of the scene we don’t know if Susan says yes, although in this case I doubt it. When you raise a scene question make sure you answer it. You may not notice your mistake, but your reader will become annoyed.
Next time I’ll tackle the rest of the common scene errors and how to fix them. Which errors do you tend to overlook when you’re writing?
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