I’ll admit it. I can write a scene that only a mother can love. One so sappy you’ll need to test your blood for sugar afterward. A sure cure for insomnia. (as boring as all these old saws).
And when the author knows it sucks, you can imagine the sheer volume of suckage I’m talking about.
We all fall in love with our words, and at times we get carried away. We all love our characters, and don’t want to be mean to them.
So when you sense you’ve got a less than stellar scene, or when your critters (your critique group) tells you it needs work, here are some ideas that may help you salvage it from the scrap heap:
- What’s at stake? Every single scene needs tension, and must either move the character along their arc, or set them back. If they’re noticing the weather, the flowers or the transcendental loveliness of their lives, there’d better be a train barreling at them (literal or figurative).
- Are you in the right POV? I’ve done this. Get halfway into an important scene, and I’m telling, and using body language to try to up the tension. Even so, it’s flat. Then I realize my problem. I should be in the other character’s POV! How do you know who’s head you should be in? I don’t believe in many hard and fast rules of writing, but this is the exception. Be in the POV of the character who has the most to lose!
- Are you being too nice? Don’t. Would we respect Scarlett O’Hara as much, if the Civil War wasn’t happening in the middle of her story? How bad would the separation be for Claire, if she weren’t so madly in love with Jamie? Would we care as much about Catniss, if she entered the Hunger Games, just to get the prize? NO! Your reader should reach The End, panting and worried the character isn’t going to get their happily ever after. That only happens if their goal is almost impossible. So feel free to drag them through the mud, blood and beer.
- Surprise the reader Deepen the character by showing the reader a quirk, or something surprising they don’t expect about your POV character. Raise questions about their backstory or their wound – But don’t answer them!
- Amp the emotion There’s a reason you wanted that scene there. Ask yourself why it’s essential. If the answer is, it’s not – that’s easy. Junk it. But if you have a good reason for it, maybe it’s boring because you need to amp up the emotion. I’m not talking Die Hard, or soap opera level, but show the effect of the development on the character through real, visceral emotion.
- Tighten, tighten, tighten Maybe your chapter should be only a scene, instead. Remember, less is often more, and your reader gets where you’re going, waaaay before you think they do. How about combining two (or even three scenes)? Would that up the tension? The stakes? Pull those readers to the edge of their Lazy-boy? You can do this in two ways: Macro: cut paragraphs that don’t serve enough purpose to belong there. Micro: tighten by slashing every sentence to it’s essence. Especially in tense scenes, this can be the difference between meh, and oh, man!
Here’s an example from the beginning a WIP (work in progress) of mine that shows not only how to tighten, but why.
I find knowing the exact time and place of my death exhilarating. It’s as if, all my life, in some primordial, subliminal part of my brain, I wondered: Is today the day? Is a lump growing, even now? Has the bus that will hit me, just left the station? Those questions are behind me now. Maybe that’s why I feel lighter today. Stronger.
Leading the pace line, I pump my way up the hill, breathing hard, but with no weakness or cramping. The sun burns through my thin jersey and sweat from my forehead drips onto the handlebars. I welcome it. Such a normal, everyday thing. Who knows if I’ll feel it again?
Will Jo and my daughter stay in touch after I’m gone? Reality chuckles in my ear. I have no doubt Jo will try. But Bee . . . is Bee. A protective momma-bear to those she loves, suspicious of all outside the circle. And she’s spent years guarding the gate, making sure Jo stayed outside. Some things can be mended, but some are irrevocably broken. Unfixable.
Bee wasn’t always that way, but losing her mother at such a young age scratched deep gouges in her psyche. She grips those she needs tightly, as if by sheer will she can snatch them back from disaster. She doesn’t realize that grip can be suffocating, and have an equal and opposite reaction in the one being squeezed. When the kids get to be teenagers, she’ll learn. I’m sorry I won’t get to see that. I think I’d enjoy it quite a bit.
Near the crest of the hill, Pete passes me, panting, but still smiling. “Thanks for the pull, Dude.”
I flip him the bird and pedal on.
Jo is somewhere in the pack behind-hopefully dropped and falling back. I still can’t imagine being anywhere that Jo isn’t, but death doesn’t care about that. This is going to be hell on Joan. She’s going to be angry with me, possibly for a long time. I snort a laugh. Who am I kidding? Jo will never forgive my treason. She’ll see my leaving her behind as the ultimate betrayal. We’d planned to die together in our sleep, at some unspecified, but very ancient age. Our friends call us ‘soul mates’. Such a flippant new age-y term to explain something there aren’t words for. My heart pinches, but not from exertion. For twenty years, Jo and I have existed in a self-contained bubble, thriving on simply breathing each other in, and out. She’ll have to learn to breathe on her own again.
Not that I have any doubt that she will. Jo is indomitable. A scrapper.
I’d very much like to see that, too, but I don’t believe I will. I leave theological certainty to Bee.
I crest the hill, the freehub ratchet clicking faster as I pick up speed. My heart rate kicks up as I realize how close I am. What have I forgotten? I’ve been over every detail, every policy, every eventuality. There’s nothing left to do.
I’m flying down, keeping pace with the cars, heart soaring, sucking in deep lungfuls of Austin morning fresh air.
Pete waits at the intersection, for the group to catch up.
Keeping my fingers off the brakes, I shoot past him, against the light.
I love you always Joa-
Not bad, right? The man shown appears to be thoughtful, educated – in keeping with his career.
Except for one thing, that Margie Lawson pointed out.
He’s riding to his DEATH!
If you know you’re going to die, you’re frightened, second-guessing, panicking. Your thoughts would be broken, and details would be a blur.
Duh. Man, did I feel stupid.
Here’s how it changed.
Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.
Leading the Saturday morning ride, I pump my way up the hill, standing on the pedals, breathing hard. My legs are still working, still strong.
Sun burns through my jersey. Sweat drips onto the handlebars. Such everyday-taken-for-granted things, but not today. Knowing I have only minutes to live have made them precious. Glorious.
Will Jo and my daughter stay in touch after I’m gone? I have no doubt Jo will try. But Bee . . . is Bee. She’s spent years guarding the gate, keeping her stepmother out. Some things can be mended, but some are forever broken. Unfixable.
Near the crest of the hill, Pete passes me, panting, but still smiling. “Thanks for the pull, Professor Pud.”
I flip him the bird then kick it. In twenty yards I’ve gained a bike length on him. Reaching the top first is a very serious game we play. Played.
Jo is somewhere in the pack behind me-hopefully dropped and falling back. I still can’t imagine being anywhere that she isn’t, but death doesn’t care. I stand on the pedals to crank harder. Jo will never forgive me. My heart tugs, but not from the exertion. For twenty years, Jo and I have lived in a bubble, breathing each other in, and out.
She’ll have to learn to breathe on her own again.
Still in the lead, I crest the hill, my bike’s freehub ratchet clicking faster and faster. I’m close. My heart rate kicks up. What have I forgotten? Details I’ve been over and over. There’s nothing left to do, except . . . this.
We’re flying down, pacing the cars. Every Saturday, I have a second of sadness at the hill’s end. Freedom whistles past my ears. This time I don’t have to brake.
Pete does. He falls back. “Hey, Pud! Brake! Brake!” Then he’s gone, one more, left behind.
I flick a glance at the Garmin—thirty mph. It’s time. Fear roars. I lock my fingers on the bars, willing them not to move. “No brake, no brake, no brake!” The bike shimmies, on the edge of control. I slam my eyes shut. A gust of elation pushes me across the finish line. I shoot into the intersection, against the light.
I love you Joan. Forev-
Have any other tips for us to fix a boring scene?