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David Farland’s Writing Tips: Why Scenes Go Bad

 

Have you ever found yourself reading a story and discovered that, “Hey, life is too short for
this.” So you close the book and toss it aside.

It that happens to you, there may be dozens of reasons why the scene isn’t working for you. As a
writer, you certainly don’t want readers to quit reading your books. Here are a few things to
think about.

First, not all stories are written for you, and you can’t write a story that every single person on
earth will connect to. A romance that works beautifully for a sixteen-year-old girl just doesn’t
interest me as a sixty-year-old man. A mystery that intrigues me might seem tepid to you.

But let’s say that an author is struggling to interest me as a reader. Here are the next most-
common problems that I find:

1) The scene is poorly imagined.

Sometimes I will be reading a nice thriller or mystery or
fantasy, and the author is trying to hit the right emotional beats, but just not doing it
exceptionally well. I’d rate them a five out of ten. When that happens, I’ll find that they are
dealing with stock characters and stock situations, or writing blah dialog that doesn’t sound
like real people. In short, they aren’t exercising their imagination. Sometimes even just the
language the author is using is cliché.
Remember this key: All failures in writing are due to a failure of the imagination. Each day
in your world needs to be different from the day before. Each scene and character needs to
be unique, different from anything else you’ve encountered. If a scene feels tepid, it’s
because the writer is being lazy.
Another common problem is that the author is growing “wordy.” The author stacks
adjectives in an attempt to heighten description. You can spot this if the author has fallen
into a pattern where every noun (or sometimes every verb) has a modifier. She might say,
“The cozy nook in Le Café Blue featured antique chairs that looked to be covered in genuine
leather, and the dark walnut table was battered from years of use. Jonathan scrupulously
studied the newspaper-style menus and ordered a dark lager with his deep-fried halibut and
English-style chips.” Now, these details might make the story richer, but if the whole point
of the conversation is to get to a new clue that Jonathan hears, then the wordiness can
sometimes just be clutter. Remember, you want to bring the story to life, not bore the
reader to death.

2) The writer got “diverted” and from the goal of the scene and the prose begins to meander.

Maybe an interrogation scene suddenly devolves into a philosophical essay on the nature of
reality, or gets hijacked by the author’s interest in coffee beans. Or maybe a romance scene
turns into a fight, or a wonder scene transforms into horror. Particularly, this becomes a
problem for “pantsers,” writers who write for pleasure and don’t have a clue where the hell
they’re taking the story. It is easy to become over-enamored with your ability to morph
prose from one purpose to another, rather than stick to a goal.
Here’s a clue. If you’re writing a mystery scene, the scene should be exploring the mystery,
not gratifying your vanity by showing how much you know about ancient history or current
affairs. It probably won’t help if your mystery scene flirts with romance or if you begin
languishing in despair about the vicissitudes of life.
While diversions occasionally add something fun and give a story an extra dimension, they
usually lose more readers than they will gain. So be careful with them.

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