Scene not working? Change something MAJOR


They are not just ‘something that happens next.’

There are many different ways to accomplish that purpose, but there’s a tendency, as a writer, to have things happen in a particular way, and to have that way get stuck in the chute.

The more things a scene needs to accomplish, the longer it may end up needing to be.

But writers’ brains have the same habit of getting stuck behind the wrong idea as any other brain. And maybe my ME/CFS brain does this more than most writers’ brains because change is so difficult for me.

When it isn’t gelling

So the first thing to do when a scene isn’t writing itself, after a reasonable amount of time expended trying, is to separate the essentials from the window dressing, and consider finding a different way entirely to enact the required elements – and change the window dressing to something else entirely.

A scene could be huge, with many characters interacting.

Or a scene can be small and intimate, or small and intimate within a chaotic outer setting, or the kind of scene where it isn’t until the end that you realize a whole bunch of things have come together.

A paced novel will have all kinds of scenes, to avoid monotony, to keep the feeling of surprise and discovery going.

But few scenes have only ONE way to accomplish their task.

When I started writing this post, I had just made a deceptively small change – the hour of the scene went from 4pm to 8pm – taking it from mid-afternoon to sunset – and was able to unstick a line of attack completely. The number of participants also dropped – from crowd scene to two principals.

Lawrence Block says that when things get stuck and you don’t know what to do next, you should bring in a man with a gun.

That’s a pantser’s move.

I’m an extreme plotter, so that’s not really an option.

But one of my writing guides, Armando Saldaña Mora’s Dramatica for Screenwriters has a whole section on how to change the scope and size of a scene, and still accomplish that scene’s purpose. Which is the real advantage of my kind of plotting, where everything has a place.

Changing a scene completely is often a budget move for movies

If the purpose is for the Protagonist to say goodbye to the Antagonist, say, the scene can be large and showy and done in front of hundreds of extras – or it can be small and intense and private and done in the back seat of a taxi (“I coulda been a contender” speech, Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront). Where the taxi isn’t even really moving.

It is something only the novelist will know in a novel, where words themselves are relatively cheap, even if producing them costs blood: was this scene completely different at any point before publishing?

Changing the scene in NETHERWORLD

You don’t have to choose between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ a scene; there is more than one way to ‘show.

The original scene was going to happen while ON the set of Opium, filming in India, where the main character would watch the filming for an hour or so, and then form her own conclusions about the undercurrents in the cast.

It works much better without the actual filming being observed, and the scene purpose is fulfilled in an even more intense way. Since the details of filming were background in PURGATORY, the reader gets the idea – and I don’t have to repeat it.

The result:

  • An unstuck scene
  • A better scene
  • A scene between two main characters, instead of one with many to track
  • Advancing the plot
  • Better dynamics
  • Definitely better dialogue

So if it isn’t working, and you’ve spent enough time that it should have gelled by now: consider that you can use a lot of what you already figured out – but reframe how the reader is going to learn what you need the reader to know.

Be bold; try something different.

Really different.

Have you done this?



9 thoughts on “Scene not working? Change something MAJOR

  1. acflory

    When I get stuck like that, it’s usually because my subconscious is trying to tell me that something’s wrong. Would that character really think/feel/act like that? Is this event really supposed to be /here/? Am I shoe-horning the event/action/whatever just because? Do I really need it at all?

    Sometimes /my/ answer is like yours – change the perspective, change the characters, change the setting. Sometimes the answer is to re-locate, and sometimes it’s best to just cut it out completely. Purpose is everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris

    “You don’t have to choose between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ a scene; there is more than one way to ‘show'”.
    This, exactly this.
    I wish authors realized that each situation is unique — and this applies to all structural levels of a novel, from mere sentence/paragraph to chapters, to the entire narrative. Following we-have-always-done-it-this-way kinds of solutions often returns lackluster results. Obviously, there has to be a balance between familiarity/relatability and experimenting, but I’m often surprised by how mundane approaches authors — even established ones — use.
    Yesterday I read a Chinese novel called ‘Life’, by Lu Yao, and one of the things that I disliked was the way the author kept invading his characters’ minds. Surely, there has to be a better way to express what someone thinks than “The man was sad. He knew that he needed to do better. He would definitely change his habits, he thought. But wouldn’t that require time? And what if others didn’t agree? Well, he would do it anyway, he decided. And that made him feel a bit happier.” (just an example, not a direct quotation from the book).
    It’s the same with scenes, as you aptly described in the post — also, you’re spot on referring to cinematic limitations. Sometimes I feel that, as authors, we’re excessively influenced by visual renderings (perhaps subconsciously?) and that doesn’t always work well with text.
    Parenthetically, although I’ve frequented your blog, I realized I had neither subscribed nor commented until now; better late than never 🙂


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The thing I hate about video is that motivation can be completely lacking for a character to do something, but because you just watched that character do it, right in front of your eyes, you have to believe it.

      As for the narrator, my first decision was that I would never be one – so I’ve learned to do everything in a way the reader can experience it as directly as I can make it.

      I don’t even use ‘said’ unless absolutely necessary to keep a group scene straight.

      It’s just craft – and caring.

      The man was sad? Really? Show me, in a personal and fresh way, the man being sad – so that I FEEL it.

      The rest is lack of craft, lack of spending the time on the work, laziness. Or inexperience. I rarely read inexperienced writers for this very reason.

      Welcome anyway – either way is fine. But I do like the conversations that get started.

      I look at other people’s blogs as writing prompts!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Every scene in this arc has switched pov character – on purpose. I thought it told the story better, and put you in touch with the pov character’s inner thoughts at just the right time.

      It helps freshen the perspective.


    1. acflory

      I think we all become hybrids after a while, especially with multi book stories. I know I plot too, but I try not to plot too far. I like to surprise myself. 🙂



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