Suppose you’re writing a romance novel. Even since the story came to you in a flash of inspiration, the climax of the story has been clear in your minds’ eye: John’s confession to his childhood friend, Jane. You’ve always known how it would go:
Jane stands on a train platform, suitcase in hand, ready to leave for good. Her mind is filled with melancholy thoughts of home, and of John, the man she’s leaving behind. She hears faraway shouts, and she turns to see him running to her, out of breath and disheveled. They lock eyes, he stammers out a heartfelt plea, and after a moment of indecision, they kiss as the train departs.
It’s the big payoff, the scene you’ve been waiting for all this time.
So why are you having such trouble actually writing it?
Many writers orchestrate key scenes in their minds long before they put the words down. While this can give you a goal to work towards, it may also be holding you back. If you find yourself having trouble writing a scene because something doesn’t feel right, consider restructuring the scene with one of these four methods.
1. Change the Point of View
For scenes that feature more than one character, another player in your story may have a more interesting perspective than your chosen viewpoint character. What does your current viewpoint character add that you can’t get from anyone else? If the answer is “not much,” consider livening up the dull scene with a new perspective.
John is halfway through his shift at the cafe. His best friend, the woman he’s loved as long as he can remember, is about to board a train, never to return. His sadness turns to anxiety, then to frenzy. He shouts an apology to his coworkers as he pulls off his apron and runs for the door. Even if he sprints the full mile and a half, he might not make it to the platform before she leaves.
In this revision, we experience an active, dramatic chase sequence instead of a tepid scene of introspection. We see what John is willing to do for Jane, which makes his desire for her to stay seem less selfish, and the last-minute tension really brings things to a head.
2. Change the Setting
Your first instinct may be to place your scene in the most obvious setting — a dramatic mountain, a romantic garden, or a solemn hospital room. Avoid this instinct. The more removed a scene’s setting is from expectations, the less predictable it becomes. As Robert Frost once said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” If your readers have read similar novels in the past, you need to give them a reason to read your novel, and fresh new settings will help with that.
Jane’s boss congratulates her on a successful first week. Her new job was demanding, but rewarding, and yet there was a hole in her heart, the crater of the life she left behind. She had to focus on her work and distract herself from her past — which proved impossible when John squeezed past her boss and approached her, a tiny velvet box in his hand.
After changing the setting, our characters’ decisions become much more meaningful. Jane has already committed to her new life, and John recognizes this, which is why he comes prepared with a ring instead of a kiss.
3. Change the Outcome
If you’ve known from the beginning what would happen during your scene, you can bet that the reader has, too. An unexpected twist can help turn a mundane scene into a gripping one. Flannery O’Connor famously remarked that during the writing of her story Good Country People, she didn’t anticipate the turning point of the story until “ten or twelve lines” before it happened. If you’re the kind of writer who plots extensively before you put pen to paper, consider scrapping your outlines — at least temporarily — and writing by the seat of your pants to see where the story goes. Here’s a potential revision:
There, on the red brick platform, Jane’s train preparing to depart, John confessed his feelings. Twenty years’ worth of pent-up emotions spilled out in a tumble. They locked eyes, their fingers twined, and he leaned in for a kiss. She dodged. With a stammer that couldn’t crystallize into words, she broke away and jumped through the closing doors of the train. He watched as his heart departed.
Perhaps Jane isn’t willing to discard her new future on a whim, and who can blame her? By rejecting John’s advances, we see how important her work is to her, and we realize how little John has taken her feelings into consideration. Now, if he wants to get the girl, he’ll need to make some real sacrifices.
4. Cut the Scene
As it turns out, not every scene is necessary. Instead of explicitly showing what happens, you can convey the events of the scene through the recollections or inferences of other characters. For scenes where not much happens, this is a great way to lower your word count. If the events of the scene are critical to the story, cutting the scene and relying on secondhand information can add some intrigue and push the reader onward to find the truth.
The last time John’s coworkers had seen him, he’d been running to the train station to try and stop Jane from leaving. Had he gone with her, leaving his old life behind? Had he been shot down, and was he sulking at home? Was he still pursuing her? Whatever happened, it likely wasn’t good for him — and it definitely wasn’t good for those being forced to cover his shifts.
At this point, the reader knows as much as John’s coworkers do. We can infer that John’s confession didn’t go well, but the future of his and Jane’s relationship is shrouded in mystery. We’ll learn about what happened in the past as we follow their story forward, which is a great way to compel readers to the climax.
If a scene is frustrating to write, it will be a drag to read. Instead of struggling through a scene that’s just not working, consider these restructuring methods. It may seem like additional work, but you’ll end up with a fresher, more engaging scene, and your novel will be all the better for it.