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to a teacher, he might have to defend door-to-door salesmen in general or the fact that encyclopedias don’t really go out of date from year to year.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?

I’m having a drawing for a copy of Love on Assignment, the second book in the Ladies of Summerhill series. Please leave your e-mail address if you’d like a chance to win.


Helen Gray said...

Coffee will be readly promptly at 4 a.m.

Cara, this is not only excellent, but so timely. I was just struggling with a scene, and you helped clarify it.



Eva Maria Hamilton said...

Great advice Cara! Can't wait for part 2.

You have great book covers!

Eva Maria Hamilton at gmail dot com

Annette M. Irby said...

Love this article, Cara. Thanks! I'm printing a copy to go over again (and again as needed). ;)

annette [at] annetteirby [dot] com

Keli Gwyn said...

Cara, thanks for sharing this list. I'm sure I've been guilty of all of these scene errors at times.

I'm eager to read Love on Assignment and look forward to another of your spunky heroines. =)

Kimberli said...

Sleep took the night off, so I thought I'd drop in to say I've enjoyed the posts this week. Some touched my heart. This post touched a nerve. Guilty! I'm interested in learning more about #5, The Inadvertent summary. In particular, how to recognize it.

Kimberli said...

Goodness, please pardon my rudeness in not thanking you for this post. My manners must have taken the night off as well.

Thank you!

Lindi said...

Cara, Love the Scene and Structure book. I'm always looking at it while writing. Thanks for the reminders!!

KC Frantzen said...


Love this Assignment! ;)

It's another for the Seekerville notebook. At this point, #4 seems to be an issue for me, though each and every one has been, or will be.

I'm trying to be more of a "planster" (ha!) on book #2. We'll see. I sure hope it helps with revisions!

Please enter may at maythek9spy dot com. Love that cover!

Katie Ganshert said...

Great post and advice, Cara! I've read Jack's book and thought it was great!

Walt M said...

I have more coffee, if we've gone through the first pot.

Head hopping is my worst. I'll be in one person's POV then relaize the other character is having a much more irritating time and I'l switch. It's like I've chosen the wrong character to begin the scene with.


Lisa Jordan said...

Great advice, Cara! I was guilty of #1 in my WF novel. I had to rework to keep from confusing the reader.

I love your book covers! So pretty and fun. :)


lisajordanbooks at yahoo dot com

BK said...

While I understand the general wisdom of #1 about having too many people in a scene, I think sometimes this gets thrown out as a rule regularly and it hinders stories.

I do understand how confusing a scene can get with many characters if we're not careful, but I think we also lean too much on the idea that says people aren't capable of keeping more than a couple characters straight at a time.

As with all other aspects of writing, it's a fine balancing act.

Kav said...

Love being the recipient of these writing lessons! I'm afraid I'm guilty of rambling my way through a scene. I lose focus during the dialogue...much as I do in real life...and suddenly my characters are off on a tangent! LOL. I started treating each scene like a mini-story and that's helped me make them more complete.

And #3 -- interruptions -- LOL -- I didn't realize how often I use that to end a scene until I read it here. LOL.

Oh -- and don't enter me in the draw, Cara. I've already have my own copy!

Cara Lynn James said...

Good morning! I'm drinking my first cup of coffee--a delicious and calorie free (I wish) latte. But it's worth it.

One of my worst failings is starting to write a scene without being sure where I'm going. I rely too much on instinct. I have a general idea what I need to do to advance the story, but often I don't have a goal on mind.

I enjoy writing these scenes and seeing where my characters want to go, but they always need a lot of revision. With a deadline I don't have time to wander around looking for a purpose.

CarolM said...

Fortunately, both the WIP and the completed MS are in first person... Makes it harder [though not impossible ;)] to head hop =D.

Yep. This does get starred and [whenever I get around to it] printed out!

I have the first book sitting here - both on my shelf [from my sister] and on my Kindle app [thank you free books!] waiting to be read. :p I am going to one of these days... Oy.

Breakfast quesadillas all around.

carol at carolmoncado dot com

Glynna Kaye said...

CARA - Great post. I'm going to have to search my writing book shelves and see if I have that book. If I do, I need a refresher and if not, I'd better buy it!

I think that point about not populating the opening of a story with too many characters is a good one to remember. I've seen it done VERY well at times, but it takes a skillful writer to pull it off. So those of us who are newbies may need to proceed with caution.

A couple of times in the past few years I've started reading a book that had 5 (or more) characters in the very first scene. One time with family members, another time with close girlfriends.

Maybe someone else could have pulled it off with expertise, but in these two cases it wasn't clear who the POV character was. So a Reader wasn't "seeing" the others through the filtering eyes of the heroine. There was no "deep POV" evident to give the reader a clue. I found myself thinking, "oh, this is the heroine," then reading on a paragraph or two "oh, no, this one must be." Then another page --"Wait. I bet it's this one."

So it's super important to nail the POV ASAP if you're going for more than a few characters in an opening scene.

Now off to see if I have that scene & structure book ...

Patty Wysong said...

Thanks for this post, it's very timely since I'm revising right now. =]

I love your covers, Cara. They're beautiful!

Patsy said...

Oooh, I've seen this book on the internet and it looks great. Would love to read it. Thanks for the giveway.

Jason and Emily said...

Great article! I especially liked the reminder of GMC for each scene. As a SOTPer, I can benefit from taking a bird's eye view more often to help write more purposefully, keep things moving in the right direction.
Thanks for the giveaway! Sign me up!

Terri Tiffany said...

Wonderful article-- I have some cleaning up to do:)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cara, what a great post to come 'back' to!

I'm grimacing with guilt as I read and re-read several points.


Thanks for scripting it out plainly for me. I'm educable, just stubborn.

Loving the second pot, Walt!

And hoping Vince is feeling better and can join us. He's been sick this week. Hugs to you, Dude. You know we love you.

Dad's lingering. Pray for comfort. I know you all understand.

Love and prayers back at ya'


Jan Drexler said...

Thanks so much for the great post, Cara! Every time I come to Seekerville I learn so much. This one is definitely one to return to over and over again.

I'd like to be in the drawing too -


Cara Lynn James said...

Kimberli, you wanted more info on inadvertent summary. Jack Bickham says you can spot it in your writing when you start sentences with, "Later," "After a few minutes," "having thought it over," "when they finally get back to the subject." It implies some time has been skipped over.

I think he's saying skip over sentences or paragraphs like this, "They went swimming, then sailing and then ate lunch." This is telling and we want to show--at least our editors want us to! So skip this and just begin the new scene.

I do a too much inadvertent summarizing because I like the reader to know everything that's happened to my character. But I suppose a lot of it is just too routine or unimportant or boring to bother mentioning.

Any other opinions???

Susan Anne Mason said...


Once again your topic is so timely. I'm guilty of many scenes not having a goal (that I'm aware of anyway). Just cute or fun to show the character's personality quirks. I guess that's not good enough.

I have a question for you lovely ladies. Is it okay to have a scene where the whole purpose is to have a first kiss between the hero and heroine? The scene starts out somewhat comical but then changes with the kiss to become tense.

Thanks so much for your expertise. Every tidbit helps a lot!

Don't enter me for the draw, because I believe I won this book in one of the Seekers draws and it is probably en route as we speak! Just finished "Love on a Dime" and enjoyed it a lot.


Rose said...


I'm printing this great check list out so while revising, I can check each scene for these common errors.

Thanks for such a helpful post!

RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

Kirsten Arnold said...

Great article, Cara! It's one I'll print out and keep close by.



Joanne Sher said...

Great stuff, Cara. Needed this -today :)

Please enter me! joanne(at)joannesher(dot)com

Anonymous said...

hi everyone! Ruthy you're back!

I'm at work - blech - and they've actually had us working today :-(


Holly said...

Great post on scene errors. When I get back to mine, I'll have to check it for those.

Can't wait to read the second book, as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one.


Myra Johnson said...

Excellent reminders, Cara!

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool SOTP writer, but one thing I ALWAYS do when I finish writing one scene and start on the next is to think about exactly what the story needs to propel the action forward. Things like:

What dramatic question do I need to ask or answer?

What important character traits or backstory could be revealed in this scene?

What new complications is it time to introduce?

Which POV is the best choice for this scene?

I absolutely LOVE Jack Bickham's and Dwight Swain's instruction about Scene and Sequel. Their books should be required reading for every writer!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Wow, you are a great teacher, Cara! Such great tips to study.

I just got your book in the mail yesterday! I'm judging a contest right now so I have a few books I've got to read first before I get back to my Seeker reads!

I was just reading a published book (secular) and I can't believe it ever got published. This person makes so many mistakes you mention here. Another thing, she doesn't ground you in the scene, doesn't give details about what the characters are seeing, smelling, feeling, etc. It's very irritating. The dialogue is really vague too. What are they trying to say? Why don't they just say it!?

Anyway, I like these tips, Cara! Going to go analyze some scenes now ...

Cara Lynn James said...

I used to start my books with too many characters up front. Since I knew my own people so well, it seemed fine. They didn't blend together. But friends who read the first few chapters said they got mixed up. At the very least make sure it's clear who the hero and heroine are!

In a romance the reader expects the first male to appear to be the hero, unless it's really obvious he isn't. An elderly uncle, a young boy etc. So be careful when you bring on the guys, especially the good looking ones. If he isn't the hero keep him off stage until the hero makes an appearance. The reader doesn't want to become invested with the wrong man!

PatriciaW said...

Great post, Cara. I'd say losing track, not necessarily forgetting what I want to accomplish, but taking an unnecessarily long route to get there is my challenge.

MaryC said...

Thanks so much for sharing the list. I think I need to pull out Bickham's book and re-read it.
I find reading craft blogs and books to be one of my best sources of inspiration when I'm struggling with my writing. I guess that's the perpetual student in me.

Off to enjoy some writing on my unexpected snow day!

Andrea Strong said...

I'll reiterate what CarolM said...this one's getting a Google star.

I'm just stalling out...I mean starting out...on my writing journey, and I want to soak up as much of this wonderful info as possible. It seems I can't learn any of it too many times.

The good news is it seems to be working. I prefer to learn from other people's mistakes, rather than from my own, so I've already cut out an entire scene and completely revamped my prologue based on lessons just like this I've read right here on Seekerville.

It bears repeating...You ladies rock! Thanks so much for all you do.

Julie Lessman said...

Hey, Cara, GREAT post today, sweetie, and sooooo informative and educational -- I learned A LOT!!

My #1 problem is, obviously, if you have read my books: 1. Too many people in the scene.

With an ongoing family saga with 14 consistent characters in it, it's been increasingly difficult to keep all these balls in the air when writing a new book. I have to write each book as a single title in my mind because although it is a series and many of my readers are familiar with the characters through all the prior books, I still have to reintroduce the entire family to any new readers who come along that haven't read the prior books.

That said, I tend to do that in an early "family" scene such as in my next book, A Heart Revealed, where I attempted an opening wedding scene to not only introduce every family member, but to establish who they were married to, their personalities and looks, quirks and mannerisms, etc. Well, needless to say, my editor got the red pen out because she said not even my loyal readers could keep track of a scene with 14 people PLUS grandkids and friends!! So I had to introduce the lot S-L-O-W-L-Y over the first quarter of the book rather than all in the first scene.

BUT ... I also agree with BK who said: "While I understand the general wisdom of #1 about having too many people in a scene, I think sometimes this gets thrown out as a rule regularly and it hinders stories."

Blame it on the fact that I am from a family of 13 kids, if you will, but I just HAVE to round out the first part of a novel with lots of flesh-and-blood characters to fill up the room and settings because otherwise I feel lonely, like the story is shallow and linear with just a hero and heroine. But that's just me, and hopefully because of my big-family upbringing, I can accomplish a crowded scene better than some, but I will admit, crowded scenes are dangerous and can overwhelm the reader if not done exactly write, implementing some of your points above, Cara.


Andrea Strong said...

Please forgive me. This comment is off topic. I wanted to let everyone know that I posted a reveiw of Audra Harders's Rocky Mountain Hero on my blog.

Click my name above to find my blog.

Lorna Faith said...

Thanks so much for the writing tips, Cara:) Totally wanting to learn more 'how-to's'...:) I'm printing a copy to over and over again!

Would love to be entered in for a chance to win "Love on Assignment." Loved the book "Love on a Dime"'re a great writer!


Pepper said...

Oh dear, Cara.
This is wonderful advice.
#s 2, 4, and 7 for me are big - but I do this in real life to, so it comes out in my writing :-)

Can I just blame it on Ruthy, just because it's fun to blame her?

I've discovered something that helps with my writing ADD tendencies: I actually write out the one sentence goal for the scene and place it by the computer as I type.

That's probably much too remedial for lots of you guys, but it's a really good thing for me :-) I'm prone to distraction

Anne Barton said...

Cara, thanks for sharing this list! You're right--figuring out what's wrong is half the battle. I can't wait for Part 2.

OK, now back to my revisions . . . :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Pepper, I also write out my scene goal in bold print at the beginning of a scene. Just so I won't forget and wander off.

I think I'm going to try something new--I'm going to write a scene with just dialogue and then fill in the rest and layer. That way I can 'see the forest through the trees.' I'm afraid I like cliches! The dialogue should show me if I'm going off track.

Mary Connealy said...

Cara, too many people in a scene reminds me of one of my personal favorite scenes from Calico Canyon.

Grace and Daniel, five little boys, the preacher and his wife, all talking over each other and misunderstanding each other.

I think it's really funny.


It was crazy hard to write.

I probably re-wrote, tweaked, punched up that scene at least a dozen times. Probably more like a HUNDRED times figuring small changes I kept making right up to the very end.

But it's so HARD. We need to know where these characters are physically, what they're saying, who they're saying it to.

Add in that they were all talking at cross purposes. Grace horrified that she'd been caught by the preacher after spending the night, completely innocently, with Daniel.

Grace scolding her naughty school children...soon to be step-sons.

The preacher's outrage at this impropriety.

Daniel, the only one who is really seeing what the preacher is saying and knowing he's caught, caught, caught.

The preacher's wife, scandalized and worried for poor Grace's reputation if she doesn't do the right thing.

All the little boys, though particularly Mark, sassing everybody, misunderstanding the adult ramifications, tormenting Grace just because that's what they DO.

I love scenes like that but they are HARD. Much, much tidier to have two people.

Pepper said...

I have a VERY big, close family and I absolutely LOVE to write scenes with loads of people in them.
Makes me feel at home :-)
I loved that scene from Calico Canyon

Anita Mae Draper said...

Oh, wow, Cara. Such great advice. I think my writing group has Scene and Structure. I'll check it out at the next meeting.

And yes, I'm printing this out, too.

And count me in for your draw...
anitamaedraper [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Anita Mae.

Kimberli said...

That's helpful. Thanks, Cara.

Andrea Strong said...

Mary~ I loved that scene in Calico Canyon, but I couldn't stop thinking, "There's no way that was legal."

With five boys underfoot in that story, and all the adopted kids in Gingham Mountain, there were different scenes that might have had "too many characters." You did it so well, though, I would never have thought to bring it up with Cara's post today.

I loved those crazy scenes where you never really know what happened until the dust has settled. But not just any one can pull it off.

I forgot to leave my email...

andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

I don't have the first book yet, but that doesn't mean I can't win the second one. hehe

CatMom said...

Thank you for this post, Cara - - GREAT lessons! I guess I might be "most guilty" of getting off track--which I often tend to "hop around" on different tasks anyway, so it follows through in my writing too *sigh*. But I'm working on it! ~ I received my copy of LOVE ON ASSIGNMENT (that I'd won!) in the mail yesterday and was THRILLED!! Cannot wait to read it! Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

Casey said...

Great list Cara, and very helpful, thanks! :)

Cara Lynn James said...

Mary mentioned something I should've added--the writer has to know what everyone in the scene is doing, where they're at physically, their attitude etc. That's hard to do. Keeping track of more than two people can be challenging.

But Julie's point is she feels comfortable having a crowd in her scenes. If you can keep track of everyone and know the readers can differentiate among all the characters, then go for it. Personally, I get lost if I have more than three characters. Sometimes I get lost with just the hero and heroine. I forget if they're sitting or standing etc. because I get really involved in their conflict.

I think if you want a bunch of people in the scene ask a crit partner if she's getting confused or if everything is clear.

Mary Connealy said...

What Cara says about keeping it all straight made me think of something else.

Kids, especially BABIES in scenes. In a really odd way they're so hard, because they don't DO anything and yet they have to BE somewhere. So who is holding them? The trouble is, since they don't do anything, I'll find myself forgetting 'who's holding the baby'. Then I'll have to go back and back and back looking for that, really slows down the forward progress.

It's enough to make you not put babies in a book, unless you need them for the NEXT series. There's gotta be someone to grow up, for books four, five and six, you know.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, what a great post! I never thought about reducing the number of people in the scene, but I can see how it would help narrow the focus.

Would love a chance to win your book!

sarah (at) sarahforgrave (dot) com

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Peeking back in to make sure there's food....

Leaving oatmeal scotchies and a pot of hot chocolate and tea.

Missy Tippens said...

Such a great post, especially since I just switched over here from a scene I'm writing that was getting boring (I was starting to summarize!) LOL

Thanks for this great info, Cara. I'm going to be good and not read comments until I go back and fix that scene and end it. :)

Jane said...

Great post.
I have Jack Bickham's book collecting dust on the shelves so I'll grab it and re-read.

janeoreilly62 at gmail dot com

CarolM said...

Here's chocolate and lots of it.

Because if I need it, I know someone else here does too.

And it's not even my characters who are misbehaving...

Jackie S. said...

Would love to win your book!!! I have Love on a Dime and want to wait and read it when I get this one!!! Thanks for the chance!!!

cynthia said...

Thanks for the great article. Great advice to think about.
I can't wait to read your latest book--I loved the first one. Thanks for the book drawing.
cynthiakchow (at) earthlink (dot) net

Loves 2 Read Romance - Laura said...

Thanks for the great tips Cara! Also I love the cover of your book it's so pretty.


Lady DragonKeeper said...

Wow, reading all the comments (and so many from published authors!) remind me why I enjoy reading Seekerville articles --not only do you get awesome tips for writing ... the conversations afterward are enjoyable too! =D

@ Mrs. James -- Being a student, I mostly write papers, not fiction ... so my "common" error is more like the time when I'm writing ... e.g. late at night when I should be sleeping, LOL.
I discovered your first book when it was free on --immediately downloaded into my PC kindle reader and enjoyed it during winter break! I'd love the chance to win book two. =)

@ Mrs. Dickerson --I cannot wait for your next novel! =D

@ Mrs. Connealy -- I just read your "Lassoed in Texas" series and enjoyed it so much! And ... I loved that scene in "Calico Canyon" that you mentioned --it wouldn't have been as hilarious without all the characters! =)

@ Ms. Julie -- AHHHHHHH, did you say wedding??? =D

"[M]y editor got the red pen out because she said not even my loyal readers could keep track of a scene with 14 people PLUS grandkids and friends!!"

I'm sure some of us would beg to differ ... I know I'm not the only Julie Lessman fan who'd love to see it ... ;-)


Pam Hillman said...

Great stuff, Cara!

Rita Monette, Writer said...

What a timely post, Cara. I have just read the first couple chapters in Jack Bickham's Scene & Structure, and just completely re-wrote MY first two chapters. What insight! Can't wait to read the rest of it. And can wait to see your next post on the subject.

I would love to win your "Love on Assignment."

Rose said...

Good article. Lots of good points here!

Martha Ramirez said...

Great post! Lots of good stuff here. Thanks for sharing:)

Beth said...

Good and needed information. Thanks.

Willa Edwards said...

lots of great food for thought here. I'm going to have to swing back for my tips later on.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this down-to-earth post, Cara. I've been working on some nonfiction, but your points drew me back to maybe venturing into another novel.

I think, as a certified codependent personality, that I'm prone to summarize rather than play the scene out to the hilt. This was esp. true in a contemporary novel I attempted. Notice the past tense. Smile. I learned thru that...the whole thing was too close to home, and I do much better w/historicals, where I'm not so tempted to RESCUE or FIX anyone too quickly or force the outcome I'd like.

And sure, I'd love a chance to win your book. I also like your covers!
Gail Kittleson