How many times do you edit and revise, and still wonder how to fix a bad scene in your manuscript. Been there, struggled with that. You don’t always know why it doesn’t work, but that feeling won’t go away.
At some point, all writers get hung up on a part of the story that just doesn’t work and can’t figure out why. Just working out what is bad about the scene takes time and effort. It needs a structured fault-finding process or a list of questions. Which is our jump-off point care of Author-tuber Erin Brock…
Brock’s highly practical checklist presents an excellent set of questions to diagnose the fault in our scenes. She even provides a flowchart, although that may be going a little far. Stick with the questions, they work.
Erin’s Bad Scene Diagnostic
Does the scene move the plot forward?
The scene needs to progress the plot in some way, otherwise it’s just filler. Does it contain action, dialogue, world-building, backstory, plot or character development? If not, what is it for?
Does the reader need to see the scene happen?
If everything in the scene can be described in narrative or dialogue, is there any point including it?
Is there a conflict?
Every scene needs some element of conflict; action, character, relationship. Where there’s no conflict, there’s no story.
Is it obvious to the reader that the scene pushes the plot forward? If the reader asks ‘why am I reading this’ that’s a failure to indicate relevance to the plot or character development.
Does the character experience an emotional shift?
Readers don’t empathise with emotionless robots. The characters in the scene need to move from one emotional state to another, perhaps several. Without it, the scene flat-lines.
Is the scene still not working?
If you can check those items off the list but the scene still feels wrong, there’s a second tranche of questions to go through before you cut it.
Does the scene contain vital information?
A scene with the single purpose to impart vital information about plot, character or setting still needs to move forward. Otherwise it’s just an info-dump. Either add some motion and emotion or move the info-dump somewhere more useful and cut the scene.
Do you like and want to keep the scene?
If the scene doesn’t work, why do you like it? Does it contain some good dialogue, description or character development? What’s worth keeping?
Does the part you like require an entire scene?
Can you clip the good stuff and use it somewhere else, or does it justify further revision? There has to be a reason to keep it as a self-contained scene.
Does the information require an entire scene?
That vital information might as easily be given in another way, in another scene. If you only need snippets, then cut the rest and merge it with another scene.
Is it possible to move the information to another scene?
This is the art of editing; spotting the gold from the kruft and fitting the pieces together in the best way. Can the vital information in a bad scene move to an earlier point in the story? Or does it gain impact when deferred to a later point in the story?
The definition of a bad scene varies from author to author, even reader to reader. It’s highly subjective, with no hard-and-fast answers. But at least Erin’s prompt-list suggests how to fix a bad scene.