Sagging Scenes: How to Know When You Are Killing Your Scenes

When middles sag--cat picture

Do your scenes suffer from TMI? Are they sagging? Boring? Repeating themselves? In other words, are they slower than molasses in January?

Last week I talked about coming in late and leaving early (scene writing tips & how to write a killer scene) in order to keep your reader hooked and turning those pages from one chapter or scene to the next. But what happens when you have scenes with sagging, drooping middles? How can you identify them and how can you fix them?

How to Know When Your Scene is Sagging

This is tough. As writers we sometimes feel as though every word counts. But often it doesn’t. Often we can pare 100 words out of 1000 without the reader noticing–other than it reading much better. 🙂

But how can you tell if things are dragging for the reader and your scenes are sagging?

Check for these things in every one of your scenes:

1. Repetition.

You have already said it before. Readers have fairly decent memories. If you’ve explained why your character feels hope whenever she is in a hospital, you don’t need to explain it again. One or two words to remind the reader is sufficient, they will pick up the rest.

2. Description.

This is the easiest way to bog down a scene. For example, say you want to describe a room for your reader and you want them to feel how awful it is. The room feels as though a hoarder lives there and it reeks.

Do you need five paragraphs? No.

Do you need two? I’m going to go with no, again.

One paragraph–no more than 4-5 sentences–should be more than sufficient. You want to highlight the biggest, most impacting aspects of the room to give the reader enough big things that they can fill in the spaces. Why? Because when they fill in the blanks they become invested in the story. It begins to feel as though it belongs to them. They are putting a piece of themselves into it and identifying with it. If you describe every detail, it doesn’t leave them room to go: OMG, that smell–I know that smell! That’s Uncle Eddy–and boom! Suddenly they’ve made that room Uncle Eddy and associate all these memories, and feelings associated with Uncle Eddy into that room. It’s theirs.

3. You’ve already made the point.

Sometimes we really, really, really want to hammer a point home. We want to jab our point right into the reader and then some. Problem is… once the reader has it, the rest becomes something that is only taking away from the story.

In other words, if you have sufficiently shown that the character is angry through their actions, words, and/or narrative… stop. Don’t continue on. Delete the rest. Believe in the power of your words.

Pare it down for the biggest impact. Allow the point to be made on several different levels and with a subtly that will truly resonate with the reader.

4. Wandering around directionless.

Sometimes our scenes go on too long and wander and spin like a cat looking for the perfect spot in the litterbox. Often this is because they’ve been written and edited without direction. These are the scenes where we have no idea why it should be there, what conflict it is laying down, and how it is moving the story forward (if at all). In other words, we don’t know what its purpose is other than we like it. This is bad. Very bad.

Sit down with every scene and figure out if it has a place in the story. If you pull that scene will the story fall apart? If the whole reason that scene is there is to give the reader a sense of the setting or some other minor thing, cut it. Take the best, most important (vital) parts and slip them into other spots in the story. Every single scene and sentence must have a purpose and drive the story forward in some way.

5. Too much information.

Imply, imply, imply.

Backstory got its bad name for a reason–TMI: Too Much Information. Do your readers need to know that your character went to college and took a minor in anthropology? Or can that be implied in the vocab your character uses? Or can it be shown in the college sweatshirt they are wearing? In other words… do we need to read 300 words about them going to college? Maybe not. Let your reader fill in the blanks when they can.

6. Revealing too much too soon.

Does the reader need to know this bit of information RIGHT now in order to understand what is going on? No? Then cut it. Paste it in a ‘later’ file if you need to, but cut it from the scene. If it doesn’t need to be there right now, it has to go.

7. Not enough conflict.

This is a big one. No conflict equals flat scenes. Conflict drives scenes forward and intrigues readers. It doesn’t have to be huge (because that gets exhausting), but it does need to exist in every scene. I shared a conflict scene checklist in a post back on JeanOram.com that might help you out if you feel your scenes might be missing conflict or could be given more direction.

8. You are bored.

No, really. Whenever you get to editing this part of the scene you skim over it or get bored and wander off. This is like a warning bell in your head that you must listen to. This is telling you that this part of the scene is off track.

Tips:

Make use of beta readers. See if they understand what is going on or feel as though anything is missing after you have trimmed up your scenes–or if you use them ahead of time, ask them where they felt tempted to skim. Vital information!

Make it a game to see how much you can cut. I needed to cut 10,000 words from a story I thought was already tight so I made it into a game a kept track of the number of words I cut from each scene. Goal achieved. Even tighter than before.

Take two sentences and see if you can make them into one. Same with paragraphs and scenes. Reduce!

Don’t be afraid to rearrange things and move them around.

Take a look at it from afar. In other words, outline what you have. Grab a piece of paper and jot down each scene using seven words or less. Sometimes this can help show where there are holes or where we have eighteen scenes showing what five could smoothly accomplish. This bigger sense of purpose can help direct and focus our scenes.

How about you? Have you solved the mystery of the sagging scene? If you have tips or comments to share on how to write a killer scene, do so in the comment section below.

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6 comments on “Sagging Scenes: How to Know When You Are Killing Your Scenes
  1. Jemi Fraser says:

    I sometimes feel like the Queen of Redundancies & Stating the Obvious. I’m trying to pass on the crown, but no one seems to want it… This is a great checklist! Off to see if my 2 little chapters pass the muster…

    • jeanoram says:

      Too funny about trying to pass the crown, Jemi! Yeah, once we know what the crown is, we don’t want it! I think I tend to state the obvious repeatedly too as one of my big flaws.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I think I’m the Queen’s mother on Redundancy and revealing too much too soon. How do you know when to let it loose and when to wait? UGH! I never know!

    • jeanoram says:

      Suzanne, that is tough. For me, my rule of thumb is–does the reader need to know this right now in order to understand where the character is coming from/why characters are reacting the way they are/etc. If the answer is yes, then I put it in. If I can hold back and create some intrigue then I opt for that. Of course, beta readers and critique partners are awesome at helping me figure this out too!

  3. Count me in too on this and I guess that makes me the Queen’s grandmother. Oh don’t think i care for that. This was a great post Jean. Thanks.

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