Fixing A Flat Scene
Sometimes you'll read over a draft and that scene you imagined so brilliantly in an outline is actually pretty dull. You'll suddenly be a few pages further on and having to go back because you switched off, thinking about what you should have for dinner, or why at the age of 34 you're still in your pyjamas at one o'clock in the afternoon.
Don't ignore that wandering mind, because it's a sign that there is something wrong with that scene. It’s a horrible moment but you should consider the following.
- Is there enough conflict? By that I mean, is someone trying to get something and making a tough decision, putting something at risk in order to get it? Does their desire for something culminate in a progressive complication that pushes the story forward? Every scene should make us want to move on to the next, answering some questions and asking new ones, raising the pressure on the main character, even in the minor victories.
- Is the character behaving truthfully? If the character is angry in the previous scene, is their behaviour and approach in this scene being informed by that emotion? Always keep the emotional throughline truthful.
- Is the character passive? A character having things happen to them is boring. It's amusing for a moment in comedy, but you need your character to be active. Their actions have to have consequences. If something is going to happen to them, it needs to be because they caused it. Watching someone make tough choices and suffer the consequences of those choices is far more engaging than watching someone constantly have things happen to them like they have some kind of curse. We want active characters because they make us cheer for them, swear at them, and that hooks us in. Your scene needs to show an active protagonist so we can connect to them.
- Does the character make irreversible decisions? We need characters to make tough choices. To do things that put them on the line for that thing they want. Your scene should have a choice that is difficult for the character, but essential for them to get what they want.
- Is the dialogue working? Make sure there is subtext in there. Every line of dialogue should serve multiple functions. Behind the words is motivation and emotion, and their dialogue is often informed by what they want. Words and actions need to move the story forward and reveal things to us. If your character is one note, on the nose, and expositional, go over it, take out unnecessary information and keep it flowing.
- Is there movement? Is there emotional movement? For example, I walk in to a meeting, I'm positive I'm going to get the promotion which will give me enough of a bonus to pay off the debt to the gangsters who have threatened me. I'm sure it's in the bag because I have dirt on my competitor. However, it backfires because unknown to me, the boss is sleeping with my competitor. Not only have I lost the promotion, but my boss is appalled I would use such underhanded tactics, so I'm fired. Suddenly things look negative, and I'm in big trouble.
- Is there too much exposition? We all have those scenes where we need to explain a lot of our world and get crucial yet mechanical information over. My advice is to put it in an action. Two people conversing to give us information is boring. Put an extra layer in there. For example, in a drama of mine, I have to explain an entire society, so I do it in the form of a presentation where there is an opposer in the room. It adds tension and gets the info over without making it clunky. Also, if a character needs to know something you can put time pressure on them. They need information, and it is dense, but they need it now because someone is chasing them. Think of exciting ways to present exposition while moving the story forward.
- Is the scene necessary? The toughest thing to decide sometimes. Often there are scenes that survive drafts because we love them so much when they really had no place. Pull the plug. Cut the chord. Stop wearing those old pants with the holes in them. I guarantee you, you won't miss the scene and I’m a firm believer that nothing ever dies in writing, it gets reimagined into the next project or elsewhere in this one.
Ultimately it all comes back to character development. I hope some of these are helpful and help you to tell a story you’re proud of.