I like to be entertained. I also like looking at this guy.
And since I recently saw an entertaining movie with this guy (Divergent, directed by Neil Burger), well, that’s even better.
But this post isn’t about that movie or Theo James. (Sorry to disappoint. But at least you have a picture.) It’s not even about Star Trek, though the title of course is a command from that series. As I said, I like to be entertained. Writing is a form of entertainment for me. Consequently, I often write blog posts or scenes off the top of my head that I find entertaining without thinking about whether anyone else might agree. Yes, I’m one of those sad people who love to laugh at their own corny jokes. As I draft a novel, ideas for scenes pop into my head thusly: It would be fun to add a bank robbery scene here. So I write the scene and chortle away.
But as I began the process of reading through and revising my novel, some of the scenes I thought were entertaining seemed less so. In fact, my energy waned just reading them, so I found myself turning to Plants vs. Zombies or email. I didn’t understand why, until I started reading The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. Alderson states the issue succinctly:
A scene that shows the character achieving a short-term goal but that fails to transition effectively to the next scene dissipates the story’s energy. It’s like stepping on a stair that’s missing. The reader knows instinctively that something’s wrong, sighs, and puts down the book. (Alderson 45)
What’s sad is that I put down my own book. Trust me when I say that as much work as crocheting is, I never stop in the middle of a project to check my email or play a round of Plants vs. Zombies. My crocheting projects are too absorbing, and I know how everything fits together. If I decided to add exta stitches for my own entertainment (like adding extra scenes to a story), I would throw the whole pattern off. (By the way, here’s my latest. I’m still making shoes. My life has become a living version of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”)
So, I get it now. Some scenes have no purpose, because they don’t really further the plot of the novel. They’re just distractions like Theo James above.
Alderson has other advice for fixing problem scenes. I highly recommend that you get her book. I don’t want to give all her tips away, because that wouldn’t be fair to Martha.
I think you know instinctively the scenes that energize your story and those that drain the life out of it. During the draft phase, my pulse quickened as I approached certain scenes involving certain characters. But one character’s scenes consistently gave me fits, because I didn’t really know her all that well. I found myself coming up with fantastic, plotty ideas like the bank robbery scene I alluded to earlier (and I didn’t actually involve her in a bank robbery; that was just an example) to make her part of the story seem more interesting. Silly me. I need to invest the time to get to know her, to find out what’s interesting about her and how she would react in situations, so that her scenes have the energy of instinct. Even if she stood there washing dishes, my knowledge of how she ticks, and how that dishwashing fits her emotional arc, would invest the story with energy and purpose. But that dishwashing scene needs to be strong enough to lead into the next scene—to be the cause that leads to an effect like ripples on a pond.
It’s also like driving. I don’t have to think about how to do it or what I should do in a certain situation. I move by instinct. If I turn the wheel a certain way, I can expect a certain outcome. Same with my characters in a scene. If I know that character A is the jealous type, I need to show that somehow, as well as the consequences of a jealous reaction in a follow-up scene. I can’t have her suddenly robbing banks in the middle of all of that jealousy just to inject excitement. Instead, I could probably turn that bank robbery scene into a short story. But it needs to be cut from the novel.
So much to do! But making my story tighter gives it more energy . . . and me as well.
Speaking of robbery, I couldn’t resist leaving you with this image:
Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011. Print.
Theo James photo from zimbio.com. Tape measure photo from prevention.com/food. Book cover from Goodreads. Bank robber image from lostinidaho.me. Snowman robbery image from jobspapa.com/robber-clip-art.html.