Every scene should have a defined purpose
This week I shredded an adult high fantasy. Since this is my genre I was pretty excited. I also know this particular MS was chosen in a recent pitch contest so I was not only curious as to why she was still getting rejections on her partials, but also nervous about whether I could make any helpful observations.
When the first chapter was solid, I began to feel that slight pain of jealousy writers don’t like to admit to. Her characters had unique aspects that made them more memorable than mine, with a few minor tweaks her MS would really stand out.
The second chapter, however, developed a case of the rambles.
Rambling through a laundry list of events is a plague amongst us pansters. It’s how we get the plot on paper. We end up with drafts that are 20,000 words too long and then we go back and edit things out. The difficulty comes when knowing where to stop. Often we think we need to keep a conversation because there’s a bit of characterization or a funny line that we really love, but in reality, those tiny moments are killing the pacing.
Somewhere in the back of my brain lives a thirteen-year-old girl who is still sitting in Wednesday night bible study banging her head on the pew and asking herself, “Why are we here?” She has a set of perpetually rolling eyes and the attention span of a gnat. She is also the person reading your MS.
Midway through any given scene that girl is screaming this question at me, and too often I can’t answer it. A scene must have a specific goal, and that goal cannot be: to tell the reader what happened between x and y. That is a transition. If a transition is more than a paragraph, then the thirteen-year-old me will start to lose interest.
Let’s ask your character: What did you do yesterday?
As a writer, you would never say: Well, I got up, then I ate breakfast, then I…
But you might:
I went to school. Fish sticks again. They’re really gross. Then we went to the playground, but it wasn’t any fun. The babysitter wouldn’t push me on the swings. Then we had pizza for dinner like we used to, but it wasn’t like mom’s. Dad should have ordered takeout.
Which is three little “Meh’s” rolled into one rambling scene. It also skims the surface of the characters and does little to make them into living people.
Instead, pick one and dig deep to make it meaningful.
We made pizza last night for dinner, but my dough wouldn’t work. Something was wrong with it. It kept tearing and sticking to my hands. I tried to patch it, but then it would tear somewhere else. I just couldn’t do it. And the sauce sucked. It tasted gross, like a can or something. Mom’s was better. She could’ve fixed it. She would’ve known what to do.
Now the pizza night has a purpose.
There are tons of scene planning worksheets out there. Most of them are tailored toward plotters. For pansters, I like Jami Gold’s Elements of a Good Scene because it can be used to evaluate a scene after it’s been written.
Using this checklist, I can show how the pizza scene is far more effective than three mini-scenes.
The pizza scene has one essential element: Action to increase the tension
We see the MC struggling with rolling out pizza dough. Something he’s never struggled with before. He is breaking down after a loss.
It has two Important Elements:
- Character development-MC blaming the dough for the problem shows that he hasn’t internalized his grief.
- Effect of character conflict-still feeling overwhelmed by his situation
There is also one Bonus Element: Character backstory
Making homemade pizza was something he did with his mom.
All this packed into ten short sentences. Now imagine spreading this over an entire scene. You could show Dad putting on a strong face, bringing back pizza night to try to normalize their lives, and failing miserably. Little sister won’t even come down the stairs. MC angry because she’s allowed to stay in her room, but he wasn’t. An entire story in one scene.
One deeper scene will create far more impact than several smaller ones.
Re-evaluate your chapters. Pick a single idea and paint a deep picture. Skimming through events will make your MS read more like a synopsis. Your characters will be shallow, and your readers won’t have a chance to connect. Your story lives in the scenes. Make them deep enough to immerse your readers.