Nancy: Fix This Damn Scene!

Protagonist vs Antagonist Face-to-Face

This past week, I had an opportunity (READ: no choice but) to go back to some of our McDaniel program basics to fix a scene that had gone off the rails. Actually, it was more like it had stalled on the tracks.

First – a bit of context for the horrible, no-good, very bad scene. My protagonist, Eileen Parker, has been stuck in idle since her (now) ex-husband went to prison for the night he attacked her and set the neighbor’s garage on fire in a rage. When she learns he’s going to get a parole hearing, it spurs her into action to create the life she has wanted for herself, a life without and safe from her ex. She starts working her plan, which at its core involves starting her own business.

What I knew I needed after I read the first draft was a confrontation scene between Eileen and her ex (who use to be named Jim but is now Alex, for those following along at home). But I needed a device to get them in the same room – no easy feat since he’s in prison and she isn’t about to go visit him. In the first draft, Eileen learns Alex is about to be paroled, which spurs her into action. However, I realized I could change it so our girl learns he’s about to have a parole hearing and, voila!, my plot device was born. I set out to write the parole hearing scene, with Eileen showing up to make a victim impact statement. There was juice there. Crunch, even. My protag and antag would face off and she would lose this round, making it the perfect mid-act turning point for Act I.

The first sign of trouble came when I just couldn’t get into the scene. I didn’t know how to start it. In the fine tradition of writers everywhere when confronted with this dilemma, I copped out and started with setting. The opening paragraph described the parole hearing room as seen through Eileen’s eyes. Juice drained. Crunch gone soggy. It went downhill from there.

After much agonizing and hair-pulling and medicating with red wine, I pulled up my big-girl pants and rummaged through my toolbox to see what I could use to fix this mess. One of my go-to writing manuals, which we used in our McD program, is Robert McKee’s Story, so that’s where my search began. McKee’s chapter titled Scene Design opens with these words: “This chapter focuses on the components of scene design: Turning Points, Setups/ Payoffs, Emotional Dynamics, and Choice.”* Yes, that sounds like a lot of baggage to carry for one little (or even big) scene, but my scene was broken and I was desperate and that seemed like a fine place to start, so off I went to ‘design’ my scene.

According to McKee, “…a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.” OK, I could lay out those basic elements of my scene. Eileen’s desire and the conflict blocking it were easy. The change in the protagonist’s state at the end of the scene compared to her state at the beginning of it took a little more consideration, but after a short time I had a list that looked like this:

Desire: Keep Alex behind bars

Action: ??

Conflict: Alex ‘fools’ the parole board with good behavior citations, release recommendations, and protestations of remorse

Change: Beginning – Eileen is determined, feels justified in her demand; End – Eileen is defeated, scared about what will happen when Alex inevitably gets paroled

Listing the actions was trickier. I had an idea of how the back-and-forth between Eileen and Alex would go, but I needed to support those by showing, by having action to back up the characters’ words. To figure it out, I played out the scene in my head, blocking it the way a stage director would a play. At the end of that exercise, my list looked like this:

Desire: Keep Alex behind bars

Eileen: Looks Alex in the eye as he enters the room
Alex: Smiles and winks at Eileen
Eileen: Shakes as she fights to look calm

Eileen: Jumps to her feet and demands to be heard
Alex: Rises to his feet, addresses board and Eileen, expresses remorse while staring Eileen down
Eileen: Staggers backward and drops back into her seat

Eileen: Gets back on feet – unsteadily this time – and speaks with a wavering voice
Alex: Whispers to his lawyer, who then asks the parole board to have Eileen removed
Eileen: Is dragged out by corrections officer

Conflict: Alex ‘fools’ the parole board with good behavior citations, release recommendations, and protestations of remorse

Change: Beginning – Eileen is determined, feels justified in her demand; End – Eileen is defeated, scared about what will happen when Alex inevitably gets paroled

Once I had the actions, I could divide Eileen’s and Alex’s back-and-forth exchanges into beats, forming a skeleton for the scene. With all of that captured on paper and swirling around in my brain, I walked away for a while. Later, I came back and re-read the notes, opened a new file, and started typing. Less than an hour and more than 1600 words later, I had a new scene.

This scene opens with Eileen staring into the eyes of the sociopath who has haunted her dreams for over two years, and ends with her devastated by being outmaneuvered by him. There’s juice. There’s crunch. And there’s a launching pad for the rest of Act I as Eileen reacts to this hit her plan has taken.

What are your favorite tips for getting a scene back on track? What creative hurdles have you jumped recently?

10 thoughts on “Nancy: Fix This Damn Scene!

    • Jeanne, I’m so glad you are feeling excited again about Dara’s story! Let us know if this ‘scene fix’ works for you.

  1. A while back I did something I’d never done before—I just skipped the scene altogether. I was toward the end of the book, and I was out of juice, and I didn’t have a turning point, and so I just skipped it and wrote the ending. Now that I’m in revision, I’ve had several ideas of how to write this last turning point and the moment of darkness. But I revise the way I write, from start to finish, so I’m just making notes when I think of something and plow onward. So far, so good!

    Congratulations on finding a way out! I like McKee, too. He’s thought of everything. 🙂

  2. I think I need to utilize this. I’m revisiting Three Proposals and I have this LOOOOONG (read: nothing important happening) scene that needs to be edited…a lot. I was thinking this morning that I had to list out the major actions/events that needed to happen in this scene, but perhaps I’ll try your (McKee’s) strategy instead. Thanks!

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    • I really like McKee, too, but every writer is different — and we had some guidance and someone to discuss the book with while we were studying it. Given your reluctance, David, I’d say you should wait in the queue (it probably won’t be that long). If you are awed and amazed, you can always buy a copy of your own.

      I think it’s a good tool, but it’s still just a tool.

  4. What a great success story, Nancy!

    I love the way you approached it from a very physical way, and then the juice came. I’m not very good at visualizing my scenes in early drafts — I tend to “hear” the words in my heads, sometimes accompanied by fuzzy, myopic pictures.

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