How to Quit Writing Bad Scenes

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Feeling stuck with your writing? Rufi Thorpe shares some tips on how to get over the bumps on the road holding you back from your amazing scenes! Check it out:

How to Quit Bad Scenes: Writing Tips from Rufi Thorpe

Sometimes I write a scene and it’s bad. Even after two published books, I am fully capable of writing a scene that doesn’t work, goes nowhere, is boring, or is just somehow untrue.

With my second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, I rewrote it start to finish perhaps four times. I deleted whole huge sections and started over. I rewrote scenes from different points of view. My “deleted scenes” file on my computer was a big, swollen hive of lost moments and dialogue and descriptions. And the book was better for it.

I find great comfort, actually, in writing bad scenes. I do not think it is possible to only write good scenes, and so if one must write bad scenes, one ought to figure out what to do about it. I am a shockingly practical creature. Here is what I do.

1) The first step is admitting you have a problem. 

The longer I have been writing, the better I get at self-diagnosing a bad scene. In the beginning, I had to rely on others, and often had to squint in order to see past what I had thought I had written, in order to see what I had actually written. Finding good readers, i.e., friends you trust, is vital. In lieu of fresh readers, I sometimes find that reading my own work either out loud or in a different medium (printed out or on a Kindle) helps me find problem spots, places where I start skimming or wanting to go faster. Once I find a scene I am having trouble with, I kind of like to make a copy of it in a separate document and save it, so that I can completely delete the scene in the manuscript and start over. You have to be looking at a blank page in order to start making changes, and you may go back in that other document and snag a line you loved that still works, or a chunk of dialogue, but I think it is always better to start with a blank page so you can fully consider your options.

2) Everything in fiction must be serving at least two purposes.

A novel seems like a baggy, shaggy monster, a house with infinite rooms, and it is easy to think that a scene should just be allowed to exist. Because it came to you. Because it is part of the house of the novel. But your novel will be better off if you can make your scenes serve at least two purposes, but ideally three or four. Is your scene furthering the plot? Is it developing the themes of the book? Is it revealing character? Is it upping the stakes? By forcing yourself to explicitly state to yourself the purpose of your scene, you can often diagnose the problem.

Sometimes a scene has no purpose, and then you are allowed to wonder why you wrote it and explore down those paths. Sometimes a scene is serving a very perfunctory purpose of delivering a plot point: say, your character gets a court summons. And that is when it can be really helpful to make conscious the other things your scene could and should be accomplishing, i.e., how can you make the court summons scene ALSO reveal character, and ALSO up the stakes or suspense, and ALSO develop the themes.

3) Everything in fiction is a choice.

I think one of the hardest things about fiction is that it is fiction, fiction being from the Latin and meaning: something-having-been-made. It is a construction, it is a fabrication, it is one hundred percent on purpose. But of course, no one is able to be aware of every choice as they are writing, and so we make a lot of stupid choices without even thinking about them, without even realizing we had a choice there. And you want your choices to be furthering the book: developing the themes, upping the stakes, putting pressure on your characters. You want to force yourself to be conscious about all the choices you have the chance to make.

If you have your characters sitting and talking in a restaurant, that may be kind of a lazy choice. Is there a setting that would put more pressure on them? How would the same conversation be different if your characters were having it with their children present? What about in an aquarium? What about if they were blind drunk? Would it change things if it were late at night? Early in the morning? After sex? During sex? The possibilities are endless, and your job is to simply make yourself aware of that fact.

It’s also important to remember that our characters have not been simply at rest like dolls before we thrust them into the scene. What events have just happened right before the scene that might change the angle? What is each character preoccupied with? Is one character incredibly exhausted? Or did they get fired from their job that morning? Sometimes it helps to write the same scene from multiple POV’s because it really forces you to fully imagine the conversation from both sides. I find this even more helpful when it is a larger grouping. In order to write a truly excellent party sequence, it is usually necessary for me to write the party from three or four different points of view in order to understand everything that happened, even if I wind up only telling the scene from one point of view.

4) Fiction has to be better than life.

I once had a fiction writer, a teacher of mine, tell me this in a rather cruel way, but what she said was that my writing needed to be more interesting than her just sitting in a chair staring at the wall. Surely, I thought that anything was more interesting than staring at a wall, but her point was that fiction must be more than lived experience, it must be hyper-vivid, philosophically charged, fast paced, and charming in order to possibly compete with the vividness of being alive.

There are a lot of things your characters may say to each other that real people would actually say – to be polite, to lead into a subject without being awkward, to avoid conflict. But fictional characters must not waste much time being polite. In fact, it is better they say what they mean in the way most people never manage to do in their whole lives. Your job as the writer is not to write dialogue that is how real people talk, but to write dialogue that is dangerous and fascinating and always on the edge of going in an unfathomable direction. Your job is to let the characters say it, say their deepest truth in their most awkward and singular manner. Your job is to LET IT RIP.

And if you can do that, then probably your scene won’t be boring anymore.

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