Monday, April 11, 2011

MFA Monday: When the Scene Is Too Long

One of the great things about being back in a writing program is the one-on-one I get with my advisor - a fabulous writer and teacher. Every three weeks I send him work and he writes all over it and sends it back with a letter about everything he thinks I did really well, and what I still should tweak in the chapters to make them more powerful.

Although I have a tremendous critique group, fresh eyes from a professional in the business of both writing and teaching writing has had a huge impact on my writing.

In the last packet I sent, he pointed out I have a tendency towards long scenes. It's absolutely true that I do: my scenes tend to run 10-12 pages, sometimes even longer. I've looked at how other authors combat scenes in which much must happen, and I've found this: if you write in third person and can follow several story lines, you can flip between them back and forth, even cutting scenes off in the middle to shift focus for a page or two, and then return to the other scene - much like TV does.

The problem for me has been that, in my first book, I wrote in first person present tense so that the story followed just one person's point of view. The story unfolded as she experienced it. There was no option to switch scenes in the middle of another.

The novel I'm revising now is in third person POV, but it still follows just one person closely, and so the problem is the same as before.

When my advisor read through my latest submission - a lengthy but critical scene in which an entire past and relationship unfold - he advised me to find a way to chop it up.

This is how:

1. You can cut. Brutally. Anything that isn't absolutely necessary for the scene, any stray words or superfluous actions - cut. Anything you can put somewhere else in the story, cut.

This didn't work well for me, because everything in this scene was critical. It is really the foundation for the conflict and resolution in the rest of the book. I was able to cut some, but not enough.

2. You can sum up parts of the dialog in narrative. 

I did a lot of this, although it took a while to figure out how to do that, because the point of the dialog was to reveal things from one character to another. I had to look at each line and ask myself: "Is this said because the other character needed to hear it, or because the reader did?" If it was mainly for the reader, I either summed it up in narrative, or cut it to put elsewhere in the book.

3. You can break the scene by moving the characters somewhere else, or interrupting it.

This is what I ended up doing that helped the most. In this scene, the mother and daughter are in a conversation in which secrets about their past come out. It's important for this scene to all take place now, because in a few hours, the mother is dead and that opportunity is gone.

So in the middle of the conversation, I had the daughter receive a phone call that takes her out of the scene. That phone call created a whole new conflict that I was trying to figure out how to work in anyway, and then the fact that the daughter left allowed more tension between her and her mother. Instead of rejoining the mom, the daughter walks away. She ends up in another place altogether where the narrative is able to divert the scene for a few paragraphs. The mother has to then find her, and the discussion can then continue.

Interestingly, the scene is still 12 pages, but it's broken into smaller segments - places at which I can make section or chapter breaks to keep the reader engaged.

I think my inability to write short scenes is something I need to work on. I like reading books in which the scenes are short - it keeps me reading, turning pages. I always have too much to say, though, which is pretty indicative of me as a person, too. I don't have short conversations, I'm unable to figure out anything worthwhile to tweet in 140 characters or less. I can't write short blog posts, although I desperately want to. Even my comments on other people's blog posts run long. I wonder how anyone manages to write such short, pithy comments when mine practically run novel-length.

Anyhow, so this is what I'm working on now. Are long scenes ever a problem for you, or am I the only one?


  1. This is really helpful, and interesting! You know what, I agree with all of that...but maybe some scenes just need to be long. The end. :) Does that help!! haha!

  2. I'm working on that right now, especially in the middle of my book. I'm also trying to add more conflict in the middle. These are great tips. Thanks.

  3. I agree Nicole! I'd already sent several longer scenes to him and he didn't have a problem with them - so maybe this one just felt bogged down. Maybe if a scene has a lot of narrative it doesn't feel as long, but if it's almost all dialog, it drags.

    Patti - thanks!

  4. I use the 'sum the dialogue up in a narrative' quite often. Sometimes it doesn't all have to be said, you know? make the reader feel smart by leaving some to least, that's what I TRY to do :)

  5. Great tips!!! I'm the opposite!! Long scenes have never been my problem! My work is usually faced paced and entire chapters are about 10-12 pages, sometimes including 2-3 short scenes. After my first draft, I usually have to go in and add more description and fix spots where I show instead of tell.

    Good luck!!

  6. That makes sense! If a scene is written well and I'm enjoying it I don't even notice how long it is. Especially if it's one I've been "waiting" for. But, for sure, if it seems boring, or redundant, that stinks.

  7. Not that you said your scene is boring or redundant...that was completely hypothetical!! haha!

  8. I agree, Tess! Most of the time I'm heavier on narrative, but this passage I went a bit overboard on the dialogue. :) It just took more careful reading to see where the second character didn't need all the information I was spilling.

    Nicole - LOL!! I don't know if it was boring, but I think it did get messy! :)

  9. I like your "long" comments! I only write short fiction at this time so my entire story is 12 pages or less! But I do need to work on developing conflict sooner and need to tighten up scenes. But like Steph I tend to need to expand instead of cut back. I could practice by writing longer comments! I am glad to read your MFA program is going well for you!

  10. Nope. My scenes are short. My chapters tend to be barely ten pages ( not all, but most). It is hard though, especially when you have a lot of info to get out. I realized the other day that I had a few really long scenes and nothing but short ones on all sides. It breaks the rhythm, and I don't think in a good way!

  11. I tend to write lean, but I like #3.

  12. Oh man, I write way too much! Always! I write like I talk which is... too much!

    I don't mind though because I'm getting better at cutting stuff out. I think of it as just having more good stuff to choose from when it's cutting time!

  13. These were great tips that I'm saving for myself. I KNOW my scenes are too long. My problem is i think everything is important. I could probably find an excuse to include someone sitting in a chair.

    Thanks for the help!