Help, My Scene Sucks and I Don’t Know Why

We’ve all been there. We have an idea of a scene we want to write, and we get to the business of putting thought to words. We slave away at it. Maybe it goes smoothly, and suddenly, your story is 2,000 words richer and it was one of those writing sprees that felt effortless.

Or maybe it was one of those days where every single letter that came out was absolute torture, and a measly 350 words later, you finally ground something out before raising your hands with frustration and walking away.

But the writing’s done. The scene’s done. We’re good to go, right?

And then we re-read it. And it’s crap. Utter, pure crap. How the hell did it get that way? What happened to the thing I had in my head? Why is it so miserable on page? The words are fine, there are some lovely sentences in there, but the scene, ugh. Blah. Other indistinct noises.

The worst thing? I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with it. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS SCENE?! There’s nothing obviously bad about it. It just doesn’t do anything for me.

Who here among us hasn’t had that experience?

The good news is that the way to diagnose what’s wrong with a scene is actually pretty simple. The hard part is doing something with it.

For any scene to work, you need 3 things:

  • A want
  • An obstacle
  • A resolution

Want, obstacle, resolution. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, look for those things. This isn’t new or particularly original, I lifted this straight from Jerry Cleaver’s IMMEDIATE FICTION. I highly recommend this book (seriously, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and get it).

Essentially, your character has got to want something. If the scene doesn’t strongly convey what he/she wants, then you have to figure that out.

Secondly, whatever s/he wants, she can’t get it. At least, not easily. There has to be an obstacle in his/her way. The obstacle has to be as great as the desire for it.

Did Captain Ahab find Moby-Dick just off the shore of Massachusetts?

Did Romeo seduce Juliet and live happily ever after?

Did Dorothy call an Uber within minutes of landing in Oz and make her way back to Kansas right away?

No. Of course not.

The other thing you can do with the obstacle is allow your character to get what s/he wants, but use dramatic irony to twist it in a way that makes your character suffer. Remember, when you are a writer, you are a soulless, evil god who exists only to torment your characters until that final moment of satisfaction and resolution at the very end.

Simba from the Lion King just couldn’t wait to be king! So the evil geniuses at Disney made it so – they killed off dear old dad (spoilers, I guess) and suddenly the path to the throne was clear. Immediately, Simba realized he didn’t quite want to be king so quickly, did he? He got what he wanted…just not how he imagined it.

And then there has to be a resolution. Cliffhangers count as a resolution, but remember, a scene has to move the story forward. A resolution brings clarity to the want/obstacle dynamic, and propels the plot forward (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ultimate Resolution, or the end of the book, but that’s another topic for another day).

So there you have it. If your scene sucks and you don’t know why, check out the want, obstacle, and resolution. Chances are, the problem with your scene lies with one or more of these things. Make each element as clearly stated as possible, and then the scene will come together much better. You won’t be out of the woods yet, most likely, but you’ll at least be able to diagnose what’s wrong with your scene and work on fixing it.

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