Writing Through a Bad Scene

Despite all the omnipresent advice to just keep writing, no matter how bad, there is nothing quite as cringe-inducing as writing your way through a scene that just isn’t working. The dialogue isn’t flowing, the characters are boring cardboard, and the pacing is off—too short here, way too long there, and the transitions are a nightmare.

Sometimes, you know as you’re writing it, that it’s not going to stay for the final draft. Sometimes you know you’ll keep it, but have to drastically rewrite it. And sometimes it’s part of an entire section or plotline that will be lost or changed so much that this current scene is useless.

If you’re writing more spur-of-the-moment, you might be the type who will go ahead and make the changes now—stop writing the scene halfway, and either start again or start from there the way you ultimately plan it to be. But if you want to at least somewhat keep to the outline you have, or if you know that starting over will open up a doubt spiral, you have to just keep going.

So how do you keep writing a bad scene?

First, I try to remind myself what the purpose of this scene is. A lot of times, a scene will have a specific purpose—this dialogue exchange, this bit of exposition, this key clue introduced, etc.—but as I’m trying to write my way to or away from that central bit, I get a little lost. When I know the scene isn’t working, I just try and focus on writing out what the main purpose of the scene is—and if I have to cut it off awkwardly after that, or jump into it a bit abruptly, at least I’ll have that important bit for revision. I can rework the introduction of the scene or the closing of it later.

Occasionally, a scene isn’t working because the purpose of the scene isn’t big enough—this is something that occurs when I put a scene on the outline that could be accomplished in about a paragraph, particularly ‘exposition’ scenes, or character introduction scenes. The latter can especially show up and seem completely random, if you’re just trying to introduce a character who will be more important later. The solution is to add multiple purposes to this scene, in order to flesh it out and disguise the subtler elements (making it feel less random or obviously a clue, etc.)—but that’s a revision task. For drafting, just accomplish the purpose of the scene, however short, and move on.

Second, I try to figure out if it’s the specifics of the writing that are bogging me down. Is the dialogue falling flat when you want it to be emotional or funny or romantic? Is the description repetitive and shallow when you want it to be poetic and unique? Is the action dragging or scattered when you want it to be clear and suspenseful? If the topic of the scene is okay, but the writing of it isn’t—just trust in revision. As much as it doesn’t feel like it, a horribly written chunk of prose spelling out a scene is still more useful than a blank page or a point on an outline. Don’t give up without at least writing out what you can, even if it’s little more than a placeholder for the real dialogue or action you’ll fill in later.

Third, I try to tap into something that grabs my interest, even if it isn’t exactly what I had planned. Maybe the characters were meant to talk about their dying mother, and I get a few lines in but it starts to drag—until I get them talking about their childhood pet instead. Suddenly, it’s flowing, and I get tons of material that deepens their characters and subtly explores their relationship to their mother. I might not use all of it, since it’s a bit off-topic, but I’m connecting with the characters, I’m coming up with new details, and I’m practicing writing out dialogue in new ways. The only trick is not to write something that’s meant to come later in the story, since that will throw you out of alignment overall—but if you come up with something completely new, a little tangent of description or dialogue or action, it might just spur you forward with a few more pages. And for a first draft, quantity is all you need right now.

Fourth, if the scene just isn’t working and is in danger of burning out the whole draft, just get to the end however you can and move on. I try not to drop it in the middle without at least trying to wrap it up, but I need to get to the point where I can just look away from it. This is where the sanctity of the first draft becomes so important—I know that no one need ever see this horrible half-mangled scene. They’ll only see the revised version, whatever that might look like, and it can look completely different.

It’s surprisingly hard to follow through on this, despite how common sense and simple it seems, because forcing yourself to confront your own inadequacies is hard. But they truly are not inadequacies, once you realize that writing is a constantly evolving process of successive drafts, and not just the ability to sit down at the blank page and spill out masterpieces.

To go back to my pottery analogy, you wouldn’t look at a potter’s work before the spinning wheel even starts and say how ugly it is and how bad an artist they are—you have to wait until they’re done working to see it in full. And that’s not even taking into account what stage of their growth they’re at as an artist, whether student or master—but even at the master level, there is a process that takes the ill-formed clay and shapes it.

We have to make the clay before we can shape it, and bad scenes are prime clay. You might think you want clay with a good shape to start, but maybe that will be harder to work with later on. I can’t speak to that just yet, but either way, don’t let bad scenes stop you.

A bad scene does not make a bad writer. The only bad writer is one who doesn’t write at all (and even then, that can change at any point—I’m an example—and I hate writing advice that says “you’re not a real writer unless…” Anyone can be a “real writer,” even if you don’t write—just try).

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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