The verdict is in: one of the most important scenes in your story has fallen flat, and you’ve been told to either deepen it or cut it.
As an editor, I’ve attached that note to a number of scenes one might expect to be inherently dramatic—among them, funerals, weddings, childbirths, battles, and first sexual encounters. But even as expectation runs high—as a reader, I’m right where the author wants me to be—the author loses his path into story while unspooling generic action.
To deepen the scene you’ll need to dig for the specific, story-relevant drama lurking beneath your breezy treatment. These eight questions will point you in the right direction. I’ll use a funeral as my example, because, duh. Digging.
1. What might you be assuming? That people would be sad at a funeral is so widely assumed, in the manuscripts I see, that writers just drop their characters at the church door and open the waterworks—sometimes right on page one, when we readers are trying to orient ourselves to character and story. Is the cryer woebegone, or faking it? We have no way of knowing. What makes one character cry might make another scoff, or laugh. It’s up to you to build both character and context, because in fiction, nothing can be assumed.
2. Can you sink deeper into your character’s perspective? Perspective provides the memorable blade that will cut into your story and free its secrets. Set aside for a minute all those things you-as-author feel your reader must know, and think about what your point-of-view character is compelled to seek. Why did your character come to the funeral? List all the reasons. There will be more than you think. Which reason might you be side-stepping? The oddest, most insignificant reason might end up being the most revealing, and the most interesting to your story. Once you decide the thing your character wanted most from that funeral, create an obstacle that will make goal attainment nearly impossible—then show us what he’s made of. Develop your character’s unique perspective through backstory motivation, inciting incident, dark moment, climactic fight—these structures comprise the core of the drama in a scene as well as in the overall story.
3. Why are you blocked about revising this scene? Consider asking the spirit of someone you know who has died. (I’m not suggesting a séance, but have at it if you want—and report back!). This is simply a way to leap beyond the limits of your perspective and adopt the sensibility of someone who no longer fears his mortality. When I ask such questions of fictional characters, I like taking down their answers longhand, in in first-person voice, as if their message is flowing right through me and into a journal. The revelation may be eye-opening—and ultimately, freeing.
4. What might be seen better from afar? Try writing “about” the scene from a greater distance. Not in the POV of the character caught in the clutches of inner turmoil, but a person who’d been driving through the cemetery, perhaps, and caught sight of the funeral. What begged this watcher’s interest, to the point that he was compelled to pull over to sate his curiosity? He now stands at the top of the hill, caught up in the drama unfolding below. What can he see from this vantage point? What can’t he see? This could help you add more dimension to the scene.
5. Does every inclusion push your story forward? For each sentence already on the page, ask:
- Can the scene be understood without it?
- Does it raise a question that draws you further into the scene?
- Does it create emotional context?
- Does it stir up inner conflict?
- Is the DNA of the entire story held in the scene, with intention that connects backstory motivation, inciting incident, and climactic fight? This will look different depending on where the scene is placed—foreshadowing, if early on, or delivering on subtext, if later—but if you thought the scene was important, there’s no reason that the full emotional thrust of the story cannot be in evidence.
- Have you attached stakes to the scene? Your character would not have put himself through the discomfort of a funeral if there weren’t dire stakes attached to his attendance. Because this is fiction, this funeral will not provide closure nor will it be considered a blessed opportunity—not anytime soon, anyway. Why? Bring those aspects forward.
6. Have you drifted from the premise of the novel? A scene goal for your POV character, complicated by external and internal forces, is a great place to start, but it may not be enough to engage the reader if the scene feels irrelevant to the story you’d been telling. The inherent-yet-generic drama of a funeral (or a wedding or a birth or a sex scene) should not be counted upon to sub in for more legitimate explorations of theme. Use the funeral to create specific pressures that force your protagonist deeper into his redemption story, his change in societal status, or whatever inner arc you’ve devised for him.
7. Is it possible that you slipped past an important emotional turning point in writing this scene? This moment of change might contain a knot of emotion that you could pick at some more. Perhaps your character arrives at the funeral as an adult kid who, through no fault or choice of his own, was abandoned by the now-deceased father he never knew. But he leaves the funeral as a man who’s discovered that his father had left behind a significant trail of bread crumbs that might allow his son to learn more about him—and your character chooses not to follow them. It won’t be enough to tell us how empowering it was to make that choice, and that for now, it was enough. We’ll want to feel that power course through his veins in full sensory detail, and fuel him as he walks away.
8. What was your most memorable moment from a funeral you attended, and what about it affected you so? Story beckons us to reclaim our inner three-year-old’s curiosity. Why? Why? But why? If you’re short on funeral experience, reread funeral scenes from some of your favorite works (they aren’t hard to find!) and analyze the variety of premise-specific ways the author used that scene to further the story.
Keep in mind that in the end, the power is yours. Digging deeper can be super rewarding, but if you think the advice was off-base, this agent might not be right for you (that exact scenario was the start of New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Weiner’s career). But if your subconscious is telling you that she may indeed be right, run your scene past the above questions to see if there’s something you might be missing.
So what will you do: cut, or deepen? I always reach for deepen first, trusting my subconscious for having put the scene there in the first place. But if in the end you cannot bend the scene to your will, here’s the ultimate quick fix:
“The day after the funeral, Michael walked through a much quieter house…”
Have you ever struggled with maintaining dramatic integrity through one of the “high expectation” scenes listed in this post? Let’s share what works. Have you ever received an editorial note that said to “deepen” a scene? How did you go about it?
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