You and Your Ugly Baby

I was working on a scene yesterday that somehow felt flabby. The prose itself was fine, but I realized that the underlying action, what was happening in the scene, just felt bleh.

So I had to reimagine the scene, searching for ways to make it fresh. I wanted my novel to be novel, one of a kind, not something I had seen a dozen times before.

Now, this is one key to good writing: you have to know what to improve.

I often see authors craft their prose beautifully, struggling more and more to eke some power out of a scene. In fact, I sometimes see authors whose prose is so good, that they can write beautifully about nothing at all.

But very often it isn’t the prose that needs work, but the underlying action within the scene.

For example, let’s say that I have a scene where Doug and Liz, a boyfriend and girlfriend, are arguing. It might be important in my romance to have them argue because I need them to break up. So I pick a topic for them to argue about—politics—and let it get heated. She’s a staunch Democrat and he’s got some Republican leanings.

In a case like this, many writers in an effort to write the scene powerfully will polish their prose. They’ll talk about how the effect of the argument “shatters” Liz, leaving her feeling worthless. They may use extended metaphors, where Doug’s every biting word feels like a tooth in a garbage disposal, chewing her up and sucking her down.

As the writer struggles to elicit as much drama from the scene as possible, he or she might even wax eloquent, piling on metaphors until the prose turns more and more purple. Eventually, the scene runs the risk of feeling overwrought, and when you as a writer look at it, it might be beautifully written, but that superficial beauty is just a mask that hides your ugly baby.


So what do you do? Take off the mask to reveal the ugly baby? No, you don’t want to do that.

So have to go back in fix the thing. Toss that baby out with the bathwater. You need a different baby. You have to reconsider the very content of the scene.

Maybe they aren’t arguing about politics after all. Maybe they have a petty argument about . . . clothes. Or family traditions.

So you brainstorm, looking for a better topic.

Perhaps they need to argue about something more vital to Liz, something more personal. So we move in closer.

Imagine that Liz is trying to start a dance studio. Getting recognition will take months of hard work and dedication—and money that she doesn’t have. But she’s just been offered a job at an upscale restaurant where she could make a decent living on her tips. But it’s not enough money to really make it rich. She either takes a comfortable job as a waitress, or she follows her passion. And after weeks of rehearsal, she’s exhausted.

By getting deeper into the characters, I can find some better material to mine. Perhaps Doug is pressuring Liz to keep up her dream of running a dance studio. She appreciates that, and part of her does want to do it, but if she does she will be poor, so poor that she might have to move in with Doug, and that’s a step that she isn’t sure she’s ready to take. He might seem like a nice guy, but is he really just trying to pressure her into a deeper relationship?

Just by changing the topic of the argument, you can create a much deeper, more moving scene. But it often takes time. You have to brainstorm your options, really consider them. So you throw out the first bad idea, and the second, and maybe the twentieth.

Fortunately, after only a day and a half of thinking, I came up with my base scene, and now I get to write it.

As for your ugly baby? Well, no one ever has to see it.


Writing Enchanting Prose Workshop–Only a Few Spots Left
My workshop in Phoenix is coming up next month, and I have room for a few more students, so if you are interested in coming, let me know. It’s February 20th – 24th. Here is a class description:

In this workshop we will work heavily on imbuing your prose with the richness and details that bring a story to life. The goal is to teach you how to fully transport readers as you take them on a journey that captivates their hearts and minds. David Farland will teach you how to totally transport your readers so that they become so immersed in your story, they forget where they are–they forget they are reading at all.

This workshop is similar to the Writing Mastery workshop, but will be more exercise-oriented, with in-class practices. Writing Enchanting Prose is more in-depth than any of David’s past prose workshops.

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