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August 30, 2018

Choices, Choices: Debating How a Scene Should Play Out

Closet rod with identical hangers with text: What If We Can't Decide on a Scene's Path?

First off, a quick update on my recent chaos—post tree crashing, family drama, death of our cat, and introduction of our new kitten. Things have been calmer the last few days, so hopefully my week from hell is over. *smile*

We’ve also come up with a name for the kitty … Lucy!

Wait, didn’t I say that we were looking for a name vaguely appropriate for her black-ish coat? Ah, well, her middle name is Fur, so together, her name is Lucy Fur (sound it out). *grin*

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Writing Is about Choices

Anyway, today we’re going to dig into a question blog-visitor Kevin asked on one of my older posts:

“The mc is asked a question about her origin, but I’m not sure how she should answer. It’s a dark origin that the person asking doesn’t know anything about. Part of me thinks she should shoo this question off and show a subtle hint or two of being bothered, the other thinks she should answer vaguely.”

I’ve mentioned before that writing is all about choices. Even once we have a general premise, plot, and characters, we can reveal the story in dozens—if not hundreds—of ways.

We make countless choices when writing a story, but what if we can't decide? Click To TweetFor example, we might know that our main character struggles to balance two seemingly opposed desires, such as the desire to feel loved and the desire to feel independent. But there are countless ways to show that struggle.

Even limiting ourselves to a specific idea, such as a couple’s “meet cute” in a romance, there are no shortage of options to introduce one of the characters having that struggle—from a stranger offering help in a tight spot to a coworker introducing a friend they want to set up the main character with.

Within the specific situation, there are also choices for the details:

  • Does the character accept the help/set up or not?
  • Are they grateful or resentful?
  • Are they outwardly thankful but show reluctance in interior monologue?
  • Or does their attitude come out in body language?
  • How does the other person react to their answer?
  • Etc., etc.

Whether we’re a plotter or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), we’ll sometimes know which options seem right for our story. But other times, like Kevin, we might not be sure.

In those cases, how do we decide? Which direction should we take a scene when we’re not sure how things should play out?

Not Sure Which Way to Take a Scene? Questions to Consider

Let me start off by saying there’s no one “right” way to approach this problem. That said, we know our story best.

9 questions that can help us decide how a scene should flow... Click To TweetWe can prompt our thought processes with these questions below, but we might find that just when logic convinces us to commit to one direction, our gut lurches in protest, hinting that we might want to go in the other direction. (Sometimes finally making a decision will help us see with clarity what we really want.)

These questions are meant to get us to look deeper into our options when we can’t decide on a direction in a scene.

If we already have a gut feel, I’d recommend following that path first (our muse/subconscious is often smarter about storytelling than we are). If that option doesn’t work as well as we hoped, and we don’t have a clear idea of how to fix the scene, we might then come back to these questions for insights.

9 Questions to Consider When Debating the Flow of a Scene:

  • What would fit the character or their personality better?

Sometimes, especially with plotters, writers can have an idea about what they think should happen, and they might feel obligated to force the story in that direction. However, the first thing we want to check is whether one option fits our gut feel of how our character would actually react if we play that scene out in our head.

  • What would do a better job of hooking the reader?

We can look at our options through the eyes of our readers. If one option hints at secrets or mysteries, readers will keep reading to learn the answer. Or if one option creates stronger emotions in readers—such as dread or compassion—they’ll keep turning pages.

  • What would do a better job of sharing essential information with readers?

This answer isn’t about more information. Sometimes it would be better to share layered or subtextual information rather than straightforward statements. Or it would be better to go with the option that shares new information rather than repetitively hints at issues that have already been hinted enough.

  • What would set up the next plot point or emotional journey milestone better?

One option might do a better job of setting up future conflicts or epiphanies than others. So we can keep in mind the perspective of thinking about “what comes next.”

  • What would fit the overall story or cause-and-effect flow better?

Similar to above, we want to look at which option would be better for the overall story’s flow—what came before and what will follow. Or maybe one creates a stronger narrative drive or a faster pace, etc.

  • What would be more interesting or compelling to readers?

Even beyond hooking our reader with secrets or mysteries, one option might simply be more unique or memorable. Sometimes a character’s surprising or unexpected reaction is the way to go.

  • What would match, expand, or fulfill the “promise of the premise” better?

If our premise is about a character discovering X about themselves, we might want to go with the option that ties in more strongly or that delves into those emotions more deeply. Some options will do a better job of delivering the story readers expect.

  • What do the other characters think about each option?

If our point-of-view character is being difficult, we might get better insights by looking at the other characters’ reactions to each option. I once didn’t know how my main character would react, but changing my perspective to see the situation from a different character’s thoughts (even without writing it down) helped me figure out what should happen.

  • What would better fit the genre or story tone?

Sometimes we debate our options because we love the idea of a certain path, but we subconsciously know it doesn’t fit. So we can ask ourselves this question to make sure we’re not ignoring a “kill your darlings” problem.

We can probably think of other questions to consider or other “lenses” to consider these questions through, but they should give us a start. *smile*

The point is to look at our options from various perspectives and build up a pro-and-con list to see which fits our story, characters, premise, theme, etc. better. Which one will deliver a better, clearer, more emotional or insightful or exciting (or whatever) story for our readers?

What If Neither Are a Clear Winner?

Or maybe we’re struggling to decide between options because neither are quite right. In that case, these questions might give us ideas for how to fix aspects of a choice that isn’t working or even give us a third path to consider that fits better yet.

Remember too, that there’s often not a wrong answer. Either option might fit, be compelling, give the right kind of hints, etc.

At that point, we might just pick one randomly. If the choices we make for a scene don’t work, we need to take a closer look at why they don’t work.

Maybe it doesn’t fit the character as well as we thought for where they are on their emotional journey at this point in the story. Maybe it misses out on giving readers the right kind of hints. Maybe it goes off on too much of a tangent, distracting from the story we’re trying to tell.

Whatever the case, the answer to that question will likely give us information to help us figure out the right option for our next attempt. But we should also keep in mind that we might not figure out the right decisions to make until after we finish our draft and see the full story. *smile*

Have you ever struggled with deciding which way to take a scene? What made it hard to choose? How did you come to a decision? Might these questions be helpful for future debates? Can you think of other questions to add to this list?

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Ken Hughes

Good solid checklist!

Two things I’d add:

If you have reasons to disagree with your gut, consider going with your gut and adding a solution to the logical problems you see. Eg, if a writer in Kevin’s position suspected the character would tell her story in detail but the story doesn’t have time to slow down for it all, she might start to tell it and the scene cuts to the end– or the character’s interrupted just as she gets warmed up.

Second, when instinct can’t seem to decide which way to go, I have a favorite tiebreaker. I make sure I know all the pros and cons of both ways, and then I flip a coin– and pretend for that one instant that the toss is completely binding. It can tell me a lot if my first reaction to seeing the coin is “that’s good” or “um, two out of three?”

Kevin
Kevin

I decided to go with answering vaguely, however this scene runs in tangent with a fight that is happening, so the more heavy dialogue is told over an action shot. The mc is upset and but not distraught. The scene actually set up well for two other scenes, one of which seemed very forced before.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Yes, I have changed as I wrote the scene, changed after and not known beforehand if someone would live or die. I have given something in general narration then later altered it to be a conversation. The one point I would make is not to overthink it at the time. Your instinct should tell you if the character would really do this or not, and you can come back and rewrite.

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