Sometimes I know a chapter is well-written but it still isn’t working as well as it needs to. For me, this often happens when the tension in the scene (or scenes) is primarily internal. It’s not that nothing is happening. It’s just that I’ve written a bunch of character ruminating and after awhile that gets tedious to read. It also tends to bring out a level of repetition in my writing that I’d prefer to avoid because really, how many new things can a character think about? I find myself writing the same loop of thoughts.
So what’s a writer to do?
Well, revise, of course!
And in this case, dig in and re-think how the scene needs to play out, how I can move out of the character’s head and ground the internal angst with external action. Author Sara Zarr, whose workshop I attended at The Writing Barn a few years ago, calls these Emotional Turnings. She taught us that every emotional turning of a character needs to be rooted in some action perceivable by the senses. It is grand and wise advice.
Yesterday, I used this advice to turn around a set of scenes that had devolved into too much thinking. In this case, the key was a phone call the MC makes to her best friend, a friend she hasn’t seen much since the MC moved to the city, and has in fact been ignoring, mostly because the MC’s life has been turned upside down by the death of her brother and the ensuing breakup of her family. And then there’s been something very strange that has happened and there’s a new boy and a bunch of angst and so the MC calls her friend.
In the original version, she calls. There is witty banter, but it’s mostly one-sided with the friend going on and on about her camp counselor job and teaching archery and the MC thinks some witty things and then the friend says she has to go without asking why the MC has called. Followed by some pages of MC angsting.
Yeah. I know. It reads well technically. It does bring back all the things that are going wrong in the MCs world and all the things she wants but possibly will never have. But yeah. A lot of ruminating.
So I gave it a hard look. Poked around at this friendship and this moment and the myopic-nature of people when their lives are taking unexpected turns. And wondered what would happen if after the friend rattled on about archery and said she had to go, the MC would say no. I need to tell you something. And instead of saying something friend-like, the friend would basically tell her to get lost. What does she think, calling after basically ignoring her all this time. Call her self-centered or whatever. I hate giving away an exact plot so this is the basic gist although not the specifics. The point is, that the MC needs to be totally blindsided here. And then the MC needs to react in a physical way and DO SOMETHING. Then and only then can she think and then and only then will her thoughts have a real, physical world catalyst. And the stakes are raised because in the process one last remaining safety net (the friend) is ripped away rather than just hanging up the phone. (well, pressing end, which is so much less dramatic, but whatever.)
See what I mean?
What do you do when you realize a scene lacks tension?