Thursday, February 24, 2011

Common Errors in Scenes, Part 2

If you’re a writer, you might know all the component parts of a scene, but your scene can still go terribly wrong. Sometimes we don’t know why it isn’t working--yet we have to figure out how to fix it.

According to Jack M. Bickham in his 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.

In my January blog I talked about the first seven errors. To review:
1. Too many people in the scene.
2. Circularity of argument.
3. Unwanted interruptions.
4. Getting off the track.
5. Inadvertent summary.
6. Loss of viewpoint.
7. Forgotten scene goal.
(This makes me sound very academic—which I’m not.)

Here are the rest of those pesky common errors:
8. Unmotivated opposition.
9. Illogical disagreement
These two are interrelated.
Why is your antagonist antagonistic? If he’s that way just because you need some conflict for the story to be interesting, you’re going to fall short. He can’t be mean just for the sake of being mean. In real life this might sometimes be true, but it won’t work in novels. It seems too convenience and not believable. Remember, coincidences happen in real life, but they’re frowned upon or worse in stories.

Your antagonist needs strong, believable motivation just like your hero. If your hero is chasing after someone to save him, a group of thugs who appear out of nowhere shouldn’t delay him or try to stop him. They should be sent by someone to thwart the hero and be part of the plot. You might think this unnecessary, but I’ll bet your editor wants everyone fortified with reasons for what they do, not acting randomly.

Make sure the arguments between the hero and the antagonist make sense and are based on the characters themselves and their backgrounds and relationship. Make sure the conflict has a real purpose.

10. Unfair odds.
As writers we try to make our antagonists strong and a real match for the hero. But if you make the antagonist too powerful, he’ll seem too formidable for our point of view character to overcome. The odds against the hero winning should be strong but not too impossible. The hero will look dumb if he charges full speed ahead right into a brick wall without any chance of winning.

If you want to pull off a David and Goliath make sure you have some trick up your sleeve so the outcome will seem reasonable. And don’t do it too often!

11. Overblown internalizations.
According to Jack Bickham this is where many unpublished romance novels fail. Not so much in published books because editors slash excessive internalizations—without remorse. So be careful of writing long paragraphs where you try too hard to define the exact emotional state of the viewpoint character. I think many of us find writing this is easier than developing conflict and putting our story people through the wringer.

12. Not enough at stake.
The scene goal should be important for both the viewpoint character and the antagonist. Insignificant goals lead to insignificant conflicts and a big yawn from the reader. It should also be important to the story as well as to the character. For example, a broken fingernail might be upsetting to the heroine, but probably not important to the story or to the reader. Of course you might devise a situation where a broken fingernail is important to the character and for an excellent reason--and therefore a worthy scene goal, but probably not.

13. Inadvertent red herrings.
They might confuse or mislead the reader because she’ll assume these clues will be developed further along in the plot. I’m guilty of this one. In my Love on a Dime manuscript I wrote with a plot mind and a short outline, but I allowed for ‘brainstorms’ to occur all along the way. I included them with the intent of developing them later. Some of these brilliant ideas died and I forgot about them or didn’t realize they were significant enough to delete. But my editor noticed. So I had to take them out or make them into something meaningful. In Love on Assignment I tried to be more careful.

Now when I come across wonderful story threads I include them, but in red so they’ll be easy to spot when I edit.

14. Phony, contrived disasters.
These often occur at the end of the scene and are meant to interest the reader in going on to the next chapter. An example—a doorbell rings at the end of the chapter. So you turn the page and discover it’s a vacuum cleaner salesman. It’s a cheap trick.
During revision examine every scene ending to make sure it grows out of the conflict and it’s not a one-in-a-million bit of bad luck.

The scene disaster should be logical and unanticipated. The unanticipated part is easy, but the logical part isn’t. Jack Bickham says that the more you work on this, the better you’ll get. We’ll see. I’m not there yet.

Do you find any of these common scene disasters harder to overcome than others? Which are your worst problems?

If you’d like a chance to win my latest release, Love on Assignment, please leave a comment and your e-mail address.


  1. Cara Lynn, thanks for this post. I may not be writing at the moment but I am reading. You have helped me figure out why I like some stories but not others.

    Number 13 is my personal pet peeve. The number of times I have devoured every detail of a story only to have it lead nowhere!

    Looking forward to your book.

    It has been flu season around here. Homemade chicken soup and hot honeyed lemonade are at the ready. Citrus fruit salad and hot cinnamon buns too.

    Peace, Julie

  2. Hi Cara:

    These are great points! I’m going to put the 14 items at the front of my WIP which is in revision.

    I am most annoyed by unintended red herrings (one book had a Texas Ranger on a mission but after the first scene he never got around to doing any Rangering! Maybe it’s because he lost his badge.) I also don’t like coincidences late in the book especially when they were not even needed for the story line.

    Along these lines I am doing something that has worked very well. When I see a TV show, like CSI, I can often unravel the story early on by asking myself: “Why did they hire an actor to play the sister-in-law?” (She was only on camera for two minutes at the very start of the show.)

    If the show’s producers paid to have a actor in the show, there is a good reason. Often it is the tipoff for how the show is going to be resolved. I think it would help writers with their scenes if they worked under the assumption that they had to pay for ‘shooting the scene’ and pay the extra actors.

    The question to ask is: “Is it worth the money to have this person or this event in a scene?”

    I think that a scene looked at in this way, from a money POV, would give a good indication if the scene has one of the 14 above mentioned problems.


  3. Coffee pot's ready.

    Cara, I need to print this. I just left the task of reworking a scene to come read your post. How timely. Thank you.


  4. This post is great!
    Internalizations get me all the time! I forget to SHOW and take the telling route. Those red herrings are also a weakness of mine, and remind me of the importance to edit, edit, edit!
    Thank you!

  5. Thanks for another dose of your helpful info, Cara. I've been guilty of several of these at times. Thankfully, I've got great CPs who point out scene problems I can't see.

  6. Great post, Cara! I've made all those mistakes, too, so it's good to know I'm not alone. I just got your book in the mail a few days ago! It's gorgeous!

  7. I've got a bad feeling. Okay, gotta run. I smell a phony disaster. I hope there's only one. And no, it's not a doorbell cliffhanger.

  8. Morning all. Do we have food yet? I need some.

    I'm thinking full breakfast buffet over by the trees. You name it, it's on there.

    Finally worked up the nerve to read the score/comment sheets from Great Expectations. First one made me decide that being a writer is not in my future. Never. Ever. The other two brought me back from that precipice a bit. Not completely mind you, but some.

    So today I am revising my pages, again, after bugging Camy with questions about formatting. I really need to print these off but it will at least get a Google Reader star.

    I hate the doorbell cliffhangers and dangling plot threads. This MS I wrote pretty much just the main storyline then went back and added the subplots throughout so I'm hoping I don't have too much of that.

    In my one that may or may not be RS, I'm more worried about that. And it needs a title. That's on today's to do list. Can't submit it for Genesis with the title 'AS YET UNTITLED by Author X' on it. Can I?


    Off to get ready and get kids ready for a fun filled day... As long as I'm home before the rain gets too bad I'll be okay.

    carol at carolmoncado dot com

  9. Good morning, Cara! More great things to look out for when you're writing. Things that are so EASY to fall into in the rush to complete a manuscript, so it's important to have "quality time" to address them during the self-revision process. Hard to do sometimes, as once you're published you don't have the luxury to set it aside for weeks or months before a re-read with fresh eyes.

  10. Oh, man, this is a print-and-keep reminder, Cara-mia!!! AND:



    "Ruthie" is an adorable little girl.


    Oh, the "Missy" in Cara's book is NOT the squeaky clean genteel Southern woman we know and love here in SEEKERVILLE!!!!

    LOVING IT!!!!

    Vince, oh my stars, you already have me checking rewards per page like a tax consultant scanning receipts in March....

    And now...

    Brilliant. Totally awesome. What a way to look at those foreshadows OR those bits of errancy that creep into our work, the why-on-earth-is-that-there stuff that goes nowhere????


    Thank you and Cara-mia today!

    I'm leaving an array of flavored creamers and maybe a barista. You never know.

    And cherry blintzes topped with crushed cherry sauce and homemade whipped cream.

    And isn't that cheesy filling to die for?

    In honor of Presidents' Day this week, we have to do cherry something, right????

  11. Morning Cara, Wow, this is definitely a keeper. What great tips and I agree with Ruthy. Vince you've also brought up some great points.

    I'm reading Love on Assignment now and its terrific. No surprise there. smile

    Have a great day.

  12. Good Morning, Cara,

    There is so much to look for during the revision process! I really work on keeping the internalization to small paragraphs or at least break up the long paragraphs with action. I'm not a skimmer when I read but I do get annoyed with pages and pages of internalization so that point is important to me in my writing.

    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  13. Wow, a lot of wonderful advice, Cara! I have yet to read your books, but I would dearly love to start! :-)

    The fourteen tips you pointed out are very helpful - I'm going to have to save this one, and your last post on this subject, in a document so I can refer to it often! :-)

    ~ Katy

  14. Thanks for the great information, Cara, about what to avoid. This is another print off and keep close by post.

    Illogical disagreements drive me crazy, and not only between the hero and antagonist, but when an author throws in an argument between the hero and heroine that makes no sense and the author just threw it in there for the sake of having a fight.


  15. Loves 2 Read Romance - LauraFebruary 24, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    Thank you for sharing with us Cara. I haven't gotten to read any of your books yet and would love to get the chance!! I am not a writer yet but I will have to keep those 14 point in mind.


  16. Good morning, Seekerville! The food tastes delicious, as usual. Thank you.

    I should mention that one of the ways to avoid long paragraphs of internalization is to have a conversation instead. It's the pov character 'emoting' to a trusted friend. It's really a sequel following the scene only it's set on stage. It seems more like a scene than a sequel.

    Editors don't like long internalizations--probably because readers don't. We don't want our readers to skip over any of our words!

  17. Kirsten, someone I know very well (not my husband) is prone to illogical arguments. It's frustrating in real life, but on the page of a book it really stands out. When I write a scene with two characters arguing I just write it out even if it's as illogical as real life fights. But unlike real life I can go back and fix. No rambling fights on paper.

  18. Thank yo SO MUCH for posting this! I have a finished book that a literary agent is interested in but asked me to "completely overhaul the story development." Augghhhhh! I have been struggling to two days to figure out where to start since the only problems I could see were minor. Thanks to your post, I will take these steps one by one and see what I can fix. Thank you for helping me to focus!

    Oh, and please enter me to win your book. Would love to read it!
    teaching by writing at yahoo dot com

  19. Cara, I not a writer, just a reader. However, I do get confused when I'm reading a book where the author has too many characters in it. I keep having to go back and re-trace to see how everyone is connected. At the end I'm still wondering about the relationship of everyone.

    Would love to read your book, Love on Assignment! It sounds great!


  20. This is a keeper, Cara-Mia, BIG TIME!!! Like you mentioned, I tend to stumble on the "Inadvertent red herrings," probably because my mind is like a sieve and the idea is a great one while it's whirling inside, but somewhere along the way it leaks out until I see it on my final read and mutter,"Oh, yeah, I meant to do something with that one ..." :)

    Great blog, my friend, and cannot WAIT to dive into the new book!!


  21. Thanks so much Cara....this is just what I needed to hear today:) Working on a scene and it needs HUGE help! I think my problems in scenes are often overblown internalizations or unmotivated opposition:( I seem to find it hard to make the characters go through anything REALLY hard...which I know is silly..something I need to work on!
    I'm printing off your article...thanks for the big helps!

    Would love to be entered to win your new book!


  22. Cara Lynn,

    These meaty posts are so timely and excellent. Thank you. I'm so short on time this week, working with the illustrator!!! YAY!

    So - little time to think and post too. (Only so much brain space I guess.)
    Anyway, know that I stopped by.

    Sandra Byrd had recommended this excellent book, Scene and Structure. It is one I used and will continue to.

    may at maythek9spy dot com

  23. Confession time--I have a tendency to add too many characters to a story and then have no real role for them. So in the end I have to combine characters and delete some. The deleted ones often appear in the next book. No good character should go to waste!

    If I planned my story a little tighter I wouldn't have this problem. But I like to give myself the freedom to follow rabbit trails just in case they actually lead somewhere wonderful. Of course I'm setting myself up for extensive revision. But that's ok. For me it's better than writing in a straight jacket.

  24. Thanks for this post, Cara---yep, it's definitely a keeper!! ~ Had to chuckle at the part about turning the page to discover it's a vacuum cleaner salesman at the door, LOL. ~ Since I still have much to learn, I struggle with several of these on the list.....but I'm striving to "overcome" them! ~ Thanks again (and I've already won your wonderful book!!). Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

  25. Great post to begin my morning as I'm in the process of editing my novel.
    I'd love to win!

  26. Thank you so much for another great post from Seekerville! This one is definitely a "print out and post on the wall" keeper!

    Thanks to all the great insights and advice I've gotten from you Seekervillians (and guests), I've completely overhauled my story from beginning to end. All I had before were some okay scenes and a pretty ho-hum story. Thanks to all of you I've ramped up the conflicts, put my heroine in hotter water, made my hero a bad-boy, and introduced an antagonist that is really a threat (my former one wasn't dangerous at all, just spiteful). I may actually end up with a story that I'd want to read :)

    Thanks again Seekerville!

    I brought a big pot of hot chocolate to share for breakfast - it's winter in Kansas again!


  27. Hi, Cara. Common error 14 is a big turn-off. In some ways, when you read a book like that, you think, "Don't be lazy, make something really interesting happen!" Or, "Nice trick. I read the first line/paragraph of the next chapter, NOW I'm going to bed."

    The tips are great reminders when any writer (published or not) begins to stray from the main objective.

    Please enter me for a chance to win Love On Assignment.



  28. Great stuff, Cara. Thanks SO much! So much I can use here, as usual.


  29. Great post! I think 13 and 14 are my biggest pet peeves as a reader. There is nothing more annoying than having a build up to what is supposed to be some huge thing and after reading say, "that's it?!"


  30. Excellent reminders, Cara. Thank you.

  31. JULIE HILTON STEELE!! New photo! New haircut. You look amazing. So adorable. Little pixie. Love it!!!

  32. Quick question while working on Genesis...

    [Okay - I'm in between classes right now and not really working on it but got an email from a friend who read it...]

    Are synopses in present tense or past tense or does it matter? I started it in present tense, but that seemed wrong even though it sounded right and changed it to past. But she said she kept thinking it should be present tense...


  33. Whitney, Road to Avonlea was one of my favorite TV series!!! I would love to write a book like that or Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic.

    One of the most important things I learned from my editor Natalie was to strongly motivate every character. Opposition for the sake of opposition doesn't cut it. Characters have to be more strongly motivated than people are in real life. This is especially true if your character does something that's not so nice or heroic.

  34. (Never saw my first post--trying again)

    I have the hardest time with #5, inadvertent summary. Though I have read craft books that actually encourage the occasional use of them. I guess the challenge is to know when.

    lance [dot] albury [at]

  35. I just saw the page for The First Five Page critique contest. Is that still going on? If so, I would like to enter for this week. The directions said to post on any blog, so I'm posting.

  36. Great post! Thanks for the helpful tips, Cara. :-)


  37. Hi Julie:

    ”I tend to stumble on the "Inadvertent red herrings," probably because my mind is like a sieve and the idea is a great one while it's whirling inside…”

    Ah, but you have a big advantage with using inadvertent red herrings. When you write sequels, you can use that red herring that appeared in book one to foreshadow an event that happens in book six. When J. K. Rowling does this everyone thinks she’s a genius. Her fans love it! Blogs are written about it.

    The key: never admit to an inadvertent red herring while there are still unwritten books in the series. : )


  38. Hi, Cara! I won the Locket contest your publisher had. Love On Assignment is at the top of my TBR pile! :D

    I'm having difficulty, so I'm off to bed for a rest. I'll get back to your post later. It looks helpful and I want to read it!


  39. Road to Avonlea remains one of my favorite shows, Cara! I fell in love with it about seven or eight years ago when I rented select episodes from our local library. After that, I had to have them all, and now we have the whole series in our personal DVD library. :) I, too, would like to write a story like that someday. Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (sequel) are also on our "favorite movies" list. I've never seen Downton Abbey. I'll look into it. :)


  40. In Praise of Illogical Arguments!

    I love illogical arguments when the heroine makes them and the hero points out the illogic. Lucy on “I love Lucy” and Gracie Allen on the “Burns and Allen Show” were masters at this.

    The key is having a really funny punch line for what the heroine says after the illogic is pointed out to her. The hero needs to shake his head in an “it’s absolutely hopeless” gesture.

    BTW: if the writer can make the heroine’s answer make some kind of sense based on feminine logic, the result can be hilarious.

    The illogical argument I don’t like the most is when the heroine says: “I can’t take the hurt of ever losing him, so I’m going to lose him now at the start.”

    Premise: It would hurt too much to lose him.


    Conclusion: I’m going to lose him.

    This one is very common. : )


    Linnette: I hope you're ok.

  41. Thanks so much for this, Cara. I've been struggling with #11 this week. Instinct tells me I'm overdoing it. Maybe your post is a sign I should trust my instinct!

  42. Cara - I wanted to say thank you again. I am making some great progress editing my manuscript thanks to your post.

  43. Cara, this is simply brilliant--super-great advice! I know it really annoys me in a book or movie when there seems to be no point to the conflict between characters. Or when if they'd only sit down and discuss the problem like reasonable adults, there wouldn't be any conflict at all.

    Actually, I think the above is exactly how they write soap opera scripts. No wonder it's a dying genre.

  44. I'm always glad I stopped in here to pick up some great tips and reminders. Thanks, Cara!

  45. Thank you, Cara, for all the wonderful advice. I've been waiting for the follow-up to your common errors in scenes post in Jan. So much to learn and follow through on. One of many areas that I struggle with is increasing the conflict in scenes and having a great reason for doing so. This is definitely one to keep.


  46. My life this week is devolving into an episode of I Love Lucy...but I don't think I'll go into details.

    Great post Cara. Any time spend INSIDE a characters head needs to be careful examined. Is it essential? Can you cut it much shorter. Can you make her/him say it out loud to someone.

    It'd dead time, folks. Internal musings are DEAD. Which doesn't mean you can't have them...but if you've got a page long stretch of a character THINKING...chances are you're doing it wrong.

  47. I like hiding internalizations by having two characters discuss what happens. It doesn't bother me if my character has similar thoughts just inside her head, but editors don't like it!!! Readers tend to skip these parts. I don't, but then I read every word of a book.

    Vince, I liked I Love Lucy, too. But I think you can only get away with her kind of illogic in a comedy. Without the humor it would be way too annoying.

    Mary, I always go with my instinct. If it's wrong my editor will change it. And I learn something in the process.

    For anyone who missed Downton Abbey you really missed a great series! But you have to love costume, period dramas set in England. You can still see all 4 episodes free by going to Masterpiece Classic and Downton Abbey.

  48. Hello, I have to say that I throughly enjoyed your very helpful tips, and your book "Love on a Dime," hoping to get to "Love on Assignment" soon!
    Thanks so much! Oh, and I also love the "Road to Avonlea," and I watched "Downton Abbey," and enjoyed that as well:)

  49. Thank you for the posting. There's so much to think about when writing a story. Sometimes when you're writing, you get so caught up in wanting the story to get from the beginning to the ending that you forget about making it realistic. I guess that's where all the revising comes in.

    cynthiakchow (at) earthlink (dot) net

  50. Early on I used to throw everyone and their brother into a scene. Entertaining, but hard to follow. Thanks for the great blog!

  51. Cara, I'm pretty certain I've made every one of these mistakes...many times over!

    Thanks for listing them.

    The road to recovery is knowing the problem!

  52. Ever feel like there's just too much to remember? I do. Evidently a lot of it is rote. And, of course, we can make changes and enhance the prose during our rewrite phase.

    Thank goodness!!!

    Great post, Cara!

  53. Great post. I think my disasters are a bit contrived at ties and I try hard to make things seem realistic. (However, the biggest problem is I don't bring enough point to my scene sometimes. It's good reading, but doesn't add to the story.)


  54. Unfortunately, I have made about every mistake except unfair odds. No kidding. Is there a prize for that? :)

    I think I've got a decent grip on most of them but because I have trouble making the stakes high enough, I will sometimes have conflict between characters that is forced. For me, having the stakes high enough and the conflict between the characters genuine aren't such easy fixes.

    Thanks for highlight this book, which I have heard of but not read.

    I'd love a copy of your book.

    cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

  55. What a great list/post! I am also guilty of 13, and have seen it in books. Thanks for all the advice! I would love a copy of your book.


  56. Wow this really helps me understand more about the problems in my writing. Thaks.
    I would love to be entered in this contest.

  57. Hi Cara! I’m not a writer but as a reader I can definitely appreciate this list. Some of the errors you mentioned had certain books jumping out in my mind because the author either strayed from or stuck to your advice -- mostly the latter, though ;) Number 13 struck me the most because as I read I’m always looking for things that might be important bits of information and a missing puzzle piece for something along the way in the story. Like I'm in some competition with the character to see who can figure it out first, LOL! ;) But, I’ll admit while it doesn’t happen often, there have been times when I thought certain things were going to grow into something more and woulda, shoulda, coulda grew into something more but they just ended up dying on the same page they were born. But I truly do have great respect for writers. It takes a lot to put your ideas and heart out there, and then chance having someone pick it apart, many times not too kindly. Maybe that’s what keeps my own pen capped for now, I don’t know? Though I’m sure the risk is worth the reward :) Some of my favorite authors visit and contribute to this blog (YOU being one of them!) and I’m so very happy they took the risk and have given us all some incredible stories to enjoy, realizing their dream and being brave enough to walk through the open door the Lord gave them. It's inspiring, what you ladies do :)

    Thank you for all this wonderful advice, Cara! This list is something I will definitely print out and keep should the Lord call me to writing someday ;) And, I just loved your first book, Love on a Dime, (especially since its set in my home state!) and I would love to read your new one!! Thank you so much for the chance :)


  58. Cara~

    I starred this one in Google, and I might just have to get the book.

    I bought Love on a Dime this week, and have started it, but I'm not very far in.

    Your give away is very timely :) If it's not too late, I'd love to be entered.

    andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

  59. I'll try this again. I tried yesterday and my computer let me type out everything and then went blank. Oh well...

    Cara, I loved your post. One reason I always return to Seekerville is that I feel like I am going to class with professionals as my teachers. You are all so great and I continue to learn so much from all of you. So thank you so very much!

    The cover art for Love on Assignment is just as beautiful as Love on a Dime. It will definitely be a book I will read. Hopefully I will be lucky enough to win a copy.

    I've just said a prayer that this will post. May God richly bless all of you at Seekerville.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  60. Thanks for sharing today.

    love the book cover.

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  61. Great tips that'll I'll be saving and referring to often - I'll also link to your post in my next newsletter.