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?
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