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: [Read more…]