4.05.2016

Check-in Scenes

One troubled by-product of writing fast-and-furious short chapters in fiction is the scene with a character who is not driving any action forward. Such a character has value to the plot, usually of a threatening variety, but the author keeps him running in place, so to speak.

How does this happen? A protagonist dominates the action, propelling the main plot forward, but even heroines need a break, so the author decides to switch to a different plot line. The choice is often one of the villains who originally set the plot in motion. When the scene opens, he is engaged in some activity like torturing an anonymous individual, showing us how dangerous he can be when crossed. Yet the only action relevant to the unfolding story is some flunky reporting that the heroine has escaped a henchman’s grasp, followed by the requisite gnashing of teeth.

You need to consider: won’t the reader realize that the villain is merely reacting to bad news? We don’t care about anonymous victims; we want to see how he is going to bring more pressure to bear on the protagonist. If he’s not doing that, isn’t the scene a waste of time?

Another candidate for this check-in treatment is a companion of the protagonist, often a woman in jeopardy. She is found in a dungeon or the equivalent, licking her wounds from rough treatment when she was captured. The action of the scene consists of some brute who comes to demand the same secret they didn’t get in the previous scene, and is rebuffed. Again, you have to ask yourself: is this scene worth the reader’s investment in time?

Unless all of the characters are engaged in fomenting action, you’re better off devising mystery clues for them. In other words, even the character waiting for the main plot to catch up to them can unveil a further secret. You can devise a puzzle piece that gets the reader to thinking about what the nefarious enterprise is really about. The villain may order that another part of his enterprise be put into play. The companion may learn that an unexpected party, maybe her father, is also involved in the evil scheme. The way the reader has a payoff for turning away from the excitement of the main plot.

Exercise: Draw up a list for each main character other than the protagonist. Write a sentence or two synopsis for each scene they appear in actively, separate from the protagonist. Do you see points of inactivity? Can you assign an unexpected revelation to that scene? Or, can the news they learn spur him to add further pressure to the plot?

“The worst pain a man can have is to know much and be impotent to act.”
—Herodotus

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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