Using amnesia in your story can lead to a contrived plot. Without proper preparation, readers will be left annoyed and confused. Don’t fall into this trap. Follow these simple tips
What they are, why they are bad, and how to fix them
In a play, stage directions are the non-dialog actions the actor must perform. These can be used to mark entrances and exits, or they can be pantomimes of actions or emotions used to set up dialogue. Here is an example from the opening of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:
Reverend Parris is praying now, and though we cannot hear his words, a sense of confusion hangs about him. He mumbles, then seems about to weep; then he weeps, then prays again, but his daughter does not stir on the bed.
While this is appropriate for a play, long passages with multiple actions strung together don’t work in novel writing.
“Julie, what have you done?” I shout at my sister. I race to the table and pick the figurines up, examining each one. I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. “I told you not to play with these.”
In novels, “stage directions” are sections where the author begins listing a character’s visible actions without giving the thoughts or feelings associated with them. These actions lose their significance because the reader is never told why they are important. As a result, the reader is bombarded with useless information, unable to discern which actions are meaningful.
In novels, anything reported to the reader must be significant. For this reason, listing all of a character’s actions (including insignificant actions) actually creates distance. The reader never gets to see the character’s thoughts and feeling and is, therefore, left outside. A character’s thoughts and feelings are half your story, don’t forget them.
Consider the previous example with the internal dialogue replaced:
“Julie, what have done?” I shout at my sister.
No, no, no, no. I race to the table and pick up the figurines, examining each one. This is so bad.
They aren’t broken, thank God, but he’s gonna know she touched them. He’s gonna know we were in here.
I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. Please, please, please, don’t let him notice. Please, God, please.
“I told you not to play with these.”
Internal thoughts can completely change the story.
How to fix stage directions
Once you have located a section of stage directions, isolate it. Take each action and create a complete MRU. (Motivation-Reaction Unit)
Since action is part of the “reaction” portion of the MRU, you will have to work backward and find the cause. (motivation)
(Input) Motivation- what caused the action? Sensory input: see, hear, smell, etc. Can also be a sixth sense or an internal motivation
- Feeling: involuntary (visceral responses: heart race, stomach drop, etc.) (show emotions)
- Thoughts: internal dialogue
- Physical Actions
If you cannot create an MRU for each action, then you don’t need them all. Pick the most important, and let the reader assume the rest.
Input- The sun glinted off the ring (vision)
- (Thought) His ring, the lying, cheating jerk
- (action) I threw back my covers, got up from my bed and stormed across my room. Then, I grabbed the ring and flung it across my room.
There are too many actions. Most can be assumed by the reader.
In the first sentence, we only need “stormed across the room.” In this passage, the reader already knew the character was in bed (this was before the excerpt) So if she stormed across the room, she couldn’t have done that unless she also threw back the covers and got out of bed. In the second sentence, we only need “flung it across the room.” We can assume she picked it up. (Now, if she used mental telepathy to will it into her hand, that would be significant.)
First Revision- (Action) I stormed across the room and flung the ring across the room (Uh oh, echo)
Final Version- (action) I stormed across the room and threw his stupid ring as hard as I could.
Input: It pinged against the wall, then, vanished into a pile of old junk.
Output: (Thought) If only getting rid of him could be that easy.
Input: A beautiful image popped into my head.
Output: (thought) Maybe it can be.
In the final version, each MRU is complete and only the most meaningful actions are given. This will help build trust with your readers because everything in the book is important. Readers will appreciate that you are not wasting their time or insulting their intelligence. Letting readers make assumptions is a sneaky way of engaging their interest.
Don’t write stage directions in your novel. Give readers only the details they really want to know.
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The love interest is an integral part of contemporary plot structure. But too often that character is little more than a pretty face designed to be the main character’s dream girl. Today’s love interest needs to be more than just a skirt waiting to be rescued. Make sure your love interest is a person who matters.
Why adding a scene to fix a problem usually doesn’t
Adding material to your manuscript to solve a problem? The magic fix-it scene rarely works. While these scenes are intended to solve a specific problem, they often cause a host of other issues. But there is a better way.
The origin of the magic fix-it scene
“My critique partner said” has now become my most hated phrase. This little collection of words is used to justify the most disastrous decision a writer could ever make: adding a useless scene.
Useless scenes come in many forms:
Vignettes into a character’s life (My CP said I my characters are underdeveloped)
A peek at the villain, (My CP said she didn’t understand my villain’s motivation)
Rambling world-building (My CP said she didn’t understand something about my world)
These are only a few examples. If you are getting these comments, tossing in an extra scene will only create more problems.
This new scene will not be grounded in the plot. If you have a logical progression of scene and sequel through your entire book, adding a random scene will interrupt the flow breaking the cause-and-effect chain. Your new scene will likely not further the plot. It will only serve as a ground for info-dumping on the reader.
Why is this info-dumping?
Any time you stop the story to explain something, you risk info-dumping on your readers. This includes any long excerpts (more than a paragraph) detailing something that isn’t happening that moment: personal backstory, history, magic explanation, setting, etc. If in doubt, use the telling test “If this were a movie, could I see it on the screen?” If the answer is “no” then you are telling. Long episodes of telling is an info-dump.
What about so-called “character moments?”
Writers like to use this word to describe scenes that do nothing except show the character having emotions. The problem with these scenes is: they do nothing except show the character having emotions. In other words, they don’t contribute to the overall story. They are not part of the cause-and-effect chain that moves the character through the plot.
Good character-building scenes affect the plot
In A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir, the scenes between Laia and Keenan are part of a larger plot point. These scenes are designed, not just to show the two of them together, but instead have a cause-and-effect relationship that leads to Laia giving Keenan her armlet. This gift has huge implications for the plot (I won’t spoil it, but I was stunned.)
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the scenes between Katniss and Peeta do more than show Katniss’s softer side. They change how she behaves. You can see the effect of her experiences shaping how she perceives the games and ultimately her reactions to the games.
Any character-building scenes need to affect the plot, otherwise, your readers will be left wondering, “Where is this going?”
What to do instead:
Rather than just inserting a scene that doesn’t fit your cause and effect chain, go back and improve the scenes you already have.
If your characterization is thin, write more personality in their reactions. Fill out your MRU’s (If you need a refresher, click here.) with more internal dialogue or thoughts. Show them struggling with an already existing decision or having regrets, and don’t put in anything that doesn’t have consequences. Every interaction your characters have shows their characterization. You cannot fix a thin character by adding a single scene. You must make sure your characterization is present through the entire novel in every interaction.
Likewise, adding large chunks of description to create more setting is only going to slow the pacing. Go back through your scenes and look for places where your characters are being affected by their setting or interacting with their setting. Look for places where the setting mirrors a character’s emotional state or juxtaposes it in a way that emphasizes it. Lastly, use short setting descriptions in transitions between scenes to ground your readers in a new environment. When you write setting, look for small pieces that draw a larger picture: a screen door slams, sun catching the drips from an icicle, the smell of exhaust and hot vinyl.
World-building is a major hurdle for many writers. Too often they fall to the temptation to explain everything in one long essay. Editors (myself included) tend to treat these long-winded explanations with the delete button. Unfortunately, authors forget to add this information back into their novels in the appropriate place. World-building must be done by showing how the character’s world affects them. Show how the world is a source of conflict for the character:
None of these examples require a long explanation about how the society reached this point. The reader only needs to know how the world is affecting the character at that moment. If you are doing this correctly, the reader should need no more than a few sentences of explanation which can easily be slipped into the MRU.
There’s no such thing as a magic fix-it scene. Work to improve your existing scenes by adding information where its important to the character, not the reader. Make sure every piece of information you add to your story has consequences for the characters. Feedback from critique partners can help you improve your entire novel, and the entire novel cannot be fixed with a single scene.
Create better scenes with a scene planning worksheet
Thinking about winging it for NaNoWriMo? You could end up staring at a blank screen with nothing to show for it. Don’t sit down to a blank page; have a plan. Scene planning worksheets will give you a simple framework to brainstorm your ideas so you will know what to do with those precious minutes when you actually have time to write.
Every writer has a different process, but sitting down in front of a blinking cursor with no idea what you’re going to write is a fast-track to frustration. Unless you have practiced free-writing and are comfortable typing whatever comes into your head, trying to write without a plan will lead you to long hours and little productivity. For many people, there is nothing more paralyzing than a tiny blinking line.
What is a scene planning worksheet?
Scene planning worksheets are outlines where writers can identify the key elements they want in their scenes. This will help ensure that scene have a purpose and are accomplishing story goals. Some of these elements include:
- Characters in the scene
- POV character’s conflict/actions
- Antagonist’s actions/reactions
- Character arc significance
Writing without specific goals can lead to scenes that do not serve the story and will eventually need to be edited out.
How to use the worksheet
The First Page
The first element is deciding if you are writing a scene or a sequel
This is based on the book by Dwight Swain (affiliate link, but I highly recommend this book)
- Scene- Conflict oriented: shows the character’s goal, the conflict/antagonistic force preventing him from achieving that goal, and ends with a disaster/failure
- Sequel-Transition oriented: shows character’s reaction to the disaster, the character processing the implications of his dilemma, and finally making a decision on how to proceed
After you have made the first decision, fill in the motivation, conflict, and stakes.
The next section is for the character’s actions. This will give you a place to summarize your sequence. The worksheet has four steps, but you may need more or less. There is no wrong answer.
The last box is the results of the scene. Did the POV character reach her goal? Decide what changes as a result of the scene.
The second page
If the conflict is resolved, follow the left column to increase the tension.
If the conflict is unresolved, follow the right column to raise the stakes.
This step is critical to keep the forward momentum going in your story. If the stakes remain unchanged, then essentially nothing has happened in your scene. A static story is a boring story. Consider the ticking clock analogy. Even if the stakes are “or he will die,” you must show that eventual consequence drawing near. Everytime you main character succeeds or fails, her problems need to only get worse. Keep this pattern up until the final battle.
Dark moment: this the hook that will get the reader to move on to the next chapter. This could be a sudden revelation or a last-minute bombshell. This will also set up the next scene or sequel in the sequence.
Tip: Make sure the previous scene/sequel leads logically into the next. A character who just found out her little sister was kidnapped isn’t going to go shoe shopping. The “disaster” is a scene sets up the “reaction” in the sequel and the “decision” in the sequel sets up the “goal” in the next scene. If you break this chain, your plot will feel disjointed.
Scene planning is another tool for writing
There are dozens of scene planning worksheets available online. If mine doesn’t work for you find one that does or create your own. The desire to write may be innate, but the ability must be learned. Finding your process will take time.
Try scene planning to make your writing process easier. You will write faster with better results, which means less editing later. Something every writer can appreciate.