Writing The Wrong Scene

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I spent three hours on Sunday writing a scene that didn’t work at all. My hero-protagonist Amichai was in prison after smuggling a pony into a hospital (don’t ask), and the antagonist paid him a visit to try to talk Amichai out of his rebellious, destructive, and self-harming ways. And though I technically added everything I wanted into the scene – MOAR CONFLICT! PHILOSOPHY! FINER-GRAINED CHARACTERIZATION! – in the end, it was still lifeless.
That novel had been rocketing along until this scene.  Suddenly, two interesting characters sat down for a chat, and it all cruised to a stop like a car with a blown tire.
I brought my new chapter to Gini, hoping that she’d tell me that it wasn’t as lifeless and uninteresting as I thought it was – but no.  She gave me the headshake, that little embarrassed lip-purse that means, “Yeah, you gotta fix this.”
I did not hold my breath until I turned blue.  Wanted to.  Didn’t.
When you spend three hours revising a 1,500 word scene – which is not a lot, it should be said, barely bigger than flash fiction – then that scene should be magnificent.  But though I’d fixed everything in that scene that I set out to do, it didn’t serve the purpose it needed to, which was to keep the ball rolling. It contained all the things that should be necessary to make it good, but it was like throwing raw meat, chopped carrots, and a whole onion into a cold pot of water and calling it stew.
I had to remind myself that this was a good thing.
When you’re a writer, you’re gonna have to toss out scenes from time to time.  That’s a positive thing, because it’s way better than the alternative, which is to keep a scene that you think is good but isn’t.
For me, the dead scenes are a boon and a curse – they’re a curse, obviously, because I’ve just spent my writing-time producing absolute dreck that needs to be thrown out.  But they’re also the place where I learn the most.  Figuring out why a scene is flat and lifeless is the clean-and-jerk of the writing process – I can’t just throw more words at it, I’ve already done that.  Something’s fundamentally wrong with the idea behind this scene.  And rather than endlessly tweaking the prose, I now have to get under the hood and figure out what, narratively, is wrong with the setup.
In the end, that’s what makes you a better writer.  You can dazzle them with prose, you can wow them with fun characters, but in the end the core unit of writing is the scene – what happens between these characters in this space.  The scene can be tilted towards action, or emotional growth, or self-reflection, but learning how to focus and refocus the scene for maximum effectiveness is a fine tool – and you can’t improve it by fiddling with some words.  You’ve gotta get under the deck, pry up some floorboards, ask the hard questions.
For me, after going for a long walk with Gini, what I realized was that the reason this scene didn’t work is that, at its core, it was two guys walking into a room and saying what was on their minds.  There was no subtext, because it was a straight-up appeal to save Amichai’s soul; there was no action, because Amichai was in prison and neither of them could move; there was no possibility of change, because the antagonist’s failure state was to leave Amichai alone to his own devices. There was no sense of forward motion because, although there was a lot of back-and-forth, the two guys entered the room in one emotional state and left it in that same state.
I could add all the words I wanted to this, but I’d be polishing a turd.  The problem was that I’d set the characters up wrong.
This led to a long and damp (it had begun to rain) conversation about what we needed to do to have the antagonist and the protagonist doing something interesting, something that could actually fail.  And how could we create not just conflict in words, but conflict in action?  What emerged was the bones of an entirely new scene that had Amichai interacting with a third party while in prison, and the stakes are now what the antagonist will do to the people who are trying to help Amichai.
Will this scene work?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that by breaking it down this discretely, I’ve learned something more about the building blocks of writing.
Viewed in terms of progress, I’ve spent four days working on a tiny block of words and produced nothing writable.  That’s depressing.
Viewed in the long term, I’ve spent four days discovering more about how to do this properly. That’s encouraging.
I’m gonna look at this as encouraging.

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