It’s a great scene, but is it the scene you need?

It’s a great scene, but is it the scene you need?

When I have students provide peer feedback, they often rave over their classmates’ scenes–for good reason. The scenes have vibrant characters and tension. They have distinctive tones and settings. 

Still, I urge my students to step back a bit when providing feedback. Consider if the scene and everything in it is actually telling the story that the writer is trying to tell. For more about how to determine what story you’re telling, you might read an earlier post.

As I write this, I keep thinking of some advice Meg Kearney gives to Solstice MFA students. She tells them that they’re hopelessly intelligent, and if they offer compassionate remarks, they won’t fail to be intelligent as they do so. Her point is that, in peer review workshops, students often compete to try to prove they know “more” than anyone else in the room. Some workshop facilitators actually reward this kind of competition. At Solstice, I’d say the philosophy is “respect the writer and respect the work.” The purpose of providing feedback isn’t to show yourself to be intelligent. It’s to serve the writer’s intention and to serve the story. When providing feedback, ask yourself, how might the writer better realize the vision?

To return to the creative process–many writers are hopelessly intelligent and hopelessly creative. And so they create wonderful, compelling scenes, one after the other. Each one, read in isolation, is captivating. 

A story, though, is more than unique, captivating scenes. The scenes need to work together to create a story. To use another metaphor, each scene is a piece of a mosaic, and all the pieces together offer a larger picture. 

This is why I urge my students to think about the larger picture. Even if the scenes are captivating, they sometimes don’t relate to the rest of the mosaic, and so the overall picture ends up indistinct. 

Writers can work to provide themselves a fresh look at their scenes and scene sequences. They might write a one-sentence description of the role of each scene in the story. If the role is a little simple–shows setting, for example–and doesn’t contain internal or external action that relates to the overall story, the writer might then consider whether or not this is the best scene to tell the story. Another way a writer might see the role of a scene is to describe, in one or two sentences, the stakes for each character involved as they come into the scene, the action that occurs, and the emotional result, which should relate to the stakes. (For example, x character fails to convince y character to xyz and is disappointed.) These stakes and action should relate to the overall story the writer is trying to tell.

My students then sometimes say, but I’m not writing an action-adventure story. It’s more subtle than that. 

All right, but there’s a difference between subtle shifts and no shifts. My suspicion is they don’t want complete stasis. They want change. They want transformation.

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