When You Write a Dull Scene…

Have you ever found that you’re reading a book and suddenly your eyes glaze over? Have you asked yourself what is wrong? Very often, if I stop right there, I’ll find a problem. Here are some questions that I ask myself as I try to figure out what is wrong.


1) Is this scene even necessary given what has gone on before?

With new authors, I sometimes find scenes that the author put in simply because they “thought of them” on a particular day. An author might have heard something interesting and said, “That would make a good scene!” So they experiment and write a scene that . . . quite frankly, needs to be tossed out like the literary garbage that it is.

Don’t try to force your brain farts into your novel!


2) Did the author even write the right scene?

Sometimes a story demands that a certain scene be written, but I’ve known authors who feel that “I’m not good enough to write that scene yet,” and so they simply leave it out. For example, perhaps the story is building toward a huge fight, where a woman is going to discover that her abusive husband killed a previous wife, but the author feels that the material is so explosive, she just doesn’t know how to proceed. So she writes around the scene, never showing it.

More often, the beginning storyteller doesn’t even recognize that the scene is needed. For example, I’ve seen novels where a young heroine needs to discover her own inner weakness, the thing that has kept her from achieving her goals her whole life. But just as happens in real life, the heroine never even sees that she has a problem, so the author fails to write a very, very necessary scene.


3) Is the scene repeating information that came before?

Many times, an author will have two characters argue (or even have physical battles) that we’ve seen before. I believe that the author does this for a couple of reasons. It may be that the author didn’t feel that she got her point across. For example, she might say, “I let the reader know that Jolene is two-faced, but I don’t think I really showed just how two-faced she is.” In other cases, the author just wants to re-emphasize the problem in order to make sure that the reader knows that there is a big problem.

In both cases, I now look at the scene and ask myself, “Is this necessary? Is there something in here that adds to the previous scene, so that perhaps I can somehow combine the two, or is this repeated scene really better than the first one?


4) Does this scene bore me simply because of the pacing, because the author is spending too much time stating the obvious?

This is an easy problem to fix, almost always by cutting. But sometimes you can strengthen such scenes by adding more conflict, or by intriguing the reader in some other way, so don’t simply throw away a scene that fails to excite.


5) Does this scene fail to hook the reader?

Learning how to hook the reader from the opening sentence is a skill that every writer needs to develop, and often the scene can be fixed simply by adding a few hooks. (See my article on hooks in my workshop Writing Mastery 1.”)


6) Where does the author’s “failure of imagination occur?” Is it the action itself that seems unimaginative, or does the author fail to bring the scene to life because he or she doesn’t add the surprising details necessary, or does the character’s reaction to the problems feel cliché, or is it something else?

My friend Kris Rusch once said that in writing, “All failures stem from failures of the imagination.” In short, boring scenes are always unimaginative in some way.

If I’m editing or rewriting someone else’s work, I might just go ahead and fix the problem, but I prefer to push the author to do so.

It might be that the author didn’t imagine the setting well, or used very pedestrian language, or didn’t delve deeply enough into the protagonist’s viewpoint so that the scene comes to life. Often, the protagonist’s senses aren’t fully engaged, and so the writer simply tells us the story in an unimaginative way instead of bringing it to life.

Sometimes you will find that the scene is weak because of faulty logic or because the author is straining to achieve an underserved emotional response.

But let me be clear: with every failed scene, there is almost always a failure of imagination at the root of the problem.

In fact, usually I find that there is more than one failure of imagination in the first place, and that several weaknesses are tangled together. So it becomes a matter of trying to untangle three or four weaknesses at the same time.

In fact, failures of imagination happen to even the best authors. Every writer has his or her bad days, those mornings when we write with our brain only half engaged, so we sometimes write prose that doesn’t measure up to our best work.

When that happens, I sometimes find it easier to throw a scene away and start over, but usually I can see where one or two weaknesses converged, and I can fix it.


7) Does this scene fail to “expand on” the story in some way?

To put it simply, every scene should either “grow” the character (by showing us deeper motivations or by displaying new depths to the character’s complex worldview), or the scene should expand upon the world (by showing us new aspects of the world, new places, or unexpected depths to the world’s rules and societies), or the scene should escalate the conflict by involving more people or by revealing depths and repercussions of the major conflict that are unexpected.

In a great scene, you can do all three! You deepen the character, broaden the world, and escalate the existing conflicts or introduce intriguing new ones.

In fact, in one scene you can even repeat effects, so that, for example, you reveal a couple of multiple depths to the conflict, so that the reader is gasping in surprise.


So these are a few things I look at when I come across a dull scene. Ideally, I like to think of each scene in my book as pearls on a string. I ask myself, does this one measure up to my standards? Is the scene large enough, impactful enough, beautiful enough? Is it necessary or highly desirable?

If the scene isn’t up to my standards, what can I do to raise it to my standards?

Writer’s Peak Workshop

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The next Writer’s Peak workshop will be held at the beautiful Zermatt Resort in Midway, which features something of a Swiss Resort theme and has its own restaurants and bakery attached. If you are feeling short on inspiration for writing, need help overcoming writer’s block or otherwise need to boost your excitement about your projects, this one is for you.

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October 22 – 26, 2018

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