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.