How to write a book · Writer basics 101

Have you missed an important scene out of your story?

Nail Your Novel missing pieceWe’ve probably all had a note in a critique that tells us we’ve failed to include an important scene. Eg – ‘We know these characters well and have seen their lives in close detail. When the cousins died in that boating accident, where was the funeral scene? What about the period where the family adjusts to the tragedy?’ (Indeed, that’s not just a missing scene; it’s an entire story thread.)

Sometimes this happens because, well, we were concentrating on a million other plot developments. We do a lot of dumb, impulsive things when we can’t see the wood for the trees. The omission only becomes apparent when we give the book to a reader who isn’t lost in the forest of book decisions. And the easiest remedy is:

Replace it with something less drastic
Well of course it is. Ask yourself: why did you include the event? Was it only to bring some characters together? To show passage of time? Brainstorm some other solutions that will be less disruptive.

The second option is to embrace the disruption, drop the bomb and enjoy mopping up.

So far, so obvious. But sometimes, the workings of the writer’s heart are more complicated – especially first-time authors who aren’t yet confident with story-wrangling. They might have the gut instinct that it’s ‘right’ for the cousins to die. But something stops them writing the scenes that explore the aftermath. When I’ve seen this, I’ve found there are two main reasons. (And here are the remedies.)

They feel unequal to the challenge
We all worry from time to time that we won’t do justice to a tricky scene or issue, especially if it’s beyond our own personal experience. But that isn’t an excuse to dodge our duty to the reader.

If we don’t feel we can tackle a situation authoritatively, it shouldn’t be in the book. Friends, we are fictioneers. We can use our empathy and curiosity to invent with truth. I’ve never (yet) been in a room with a dying cancer patient but I can find the resources to write about it convincingly and with respect (My Memories of a Future Life). Crime writers manage to find out how murderers think. If lack of life experience is stopping you using a plot idea, take a break to research it. Most of human experience has been set down in other novels or real-life accounts. Find them. Live your events in the imaginations of others until you feel armed to write them.

Here’s a separate reason why writers might avoid that funeral episode.

They assume the characters won’t do anything surprising. It’s just a funeral, right?

Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable. That’s often good, but equally there are events that can’t be avoided without leaving an obvious hole. So we think we know what will happen at the funeral? We think the reader has seen it a dozen times before?

No they haven’t. Not with your characters.

You just set yourself a high-stakes challenge. So rock that funeral. Set up character developments the reader didn’t expect. Heal rifts. Or create them. Set your story on fire. Brainstorm the way to present the funeral, wake, mourning and fallout in a way that is not predictable.

An alternative suggestion: if you want the funeral to be fairly routine, you can show the impact with a light touch – perhaps a montage of details that are vivid enough to remain in the reader’s memory so that the event is marked. A character will put on a seldom-worn smart suit, which tells us there’s a formal occasion. The extended family reprioritise their diaries, all clearing the same date. Perhaps possessions are redistributed. Someone is dismayed to be bequeathed an ugly lamp but doesn’t feel they can refuse it because it belonged to the departed cousin. The mixed feelings this generates will be an interesting way to log the gravity of the event. Get creative. Have fun.

Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere’s a lot more advice on plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?


11 thoughts on “Have you missed an important scene out of your story?

  1. Very well said. Sometimes these little in-between scenes are absolutely needed for transitions from one plot point to the next. I found out the hard way when I was asked to do a “revise and resubmit” — cutting out scenes that didn’t feature the main characters meant many transitions got lost in the process. It’s another reason a critique group or beta reader (or both) are invaluable assets to writers.

    Great article!

    1. Thanks, Giff! The ‘in-between’ scenes – that’s a good name for them. I often find myself thinking ‘I need to show them getting the train’ or ‘getting the news’, but hadn’t imagined anything interesting about it. But when I’ve buckled down, I’ve often surprised myself and made a scene I like very much.
      I can imagine how onerous it must have been for you to have to remove so much and then stitch the book back together.

  2. Roz asked: Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?

    I’m more likely to skimp on motivation than plot, at least, according to my beta readers. It’s usually a question of how much of what’s in my head should end up on the page. After reading time and again about the dangers of info-dumping, I sometimes go to the other extreme and withhold information that I shouldn’t. Fortunately, the problems are usually solved with a strategically placed paragraph or two.

    I have a similar problem with deciding how much world-building to include. In general, I try to fold details about my fantasy world into the story as it’s needed. I think of it as “just in time” exposition. But again, in trying to avoid dumping too much information at once, I occasionally leave out details that clarify why/how something happens. My beta readers have been invaluable at helping me identify where I need to fill in gaps. What’s lacking is usually sitting in my notes, waiting to be revealed.

  3. You hit the nail on the head with this line “Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable.” That’s exactly what happened to me recently, and sent me scurrying back to my outline to see if I could change the scene or do it in a different way. My experiments are still underway, but I hope something works out!

  4. Sometimes I assume what happened between the scenes is obvious… and then I’m surprised when it turns out the readers don’t agree!

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