All-Points Bulletin: Finding the Missing Scene

The crime is elusive. Despite the clues — a character transformation not quite earned, too hasty of a consequence — most of us are quick to dismiss the evidence. A writer is often the last person to realize that a scene is missing. Yet its effects can be devastating, dealing a death blow to a story or novel just as assuredly as a six-foot high stack of rejection letters.

Missing scenes are most common in the messy first draft. The story shifts direction partway through, characters make different choices from what the writer planned, and voila, plot holes. Plot holes, however, are fairly easy to spot. The story simply doesn’t make sense. But the more insipid missing scenes are those that occur in an otherwise sound story, that give it a feeling of there just being something wrong.

In the classification genus of pantser versus plotter, I’m most certainly in the latter column. I can write a chapter or two at the beginning, but thereafter, I need a color-coded Powerpoint presentation complete with character arcs and major events to keep me moving. I pinpoint the apex of the novel, identify the key scenes, and note the character’s developments before tapping out the words, Chapter Three. Still, with all this planning, I always find myself facing a room full of workshoppers accusing me of disappearing scenes critical to my story. Planning alone cannot prevent missing scenes.

And for good reason. We all have blind spots. Many of us are non-confrontational and while we can all agree that confrontation is often critical to the story, it’s still difficult to know how far to take a fight scene. In addition, some types of scenes are so trite that it feels impossible to write them in a new or innovative way. In one of my stories, I needed to have a prison scene. I knew it deep down in my bones, but I absolutely resisted the idea. I couldn’t imagine I could add anything interesting or innovative to the oeuvre. And finally, readers are obtuse. How could those supposedly intelligent fellow workshoppers not see the character’s transformation that I had, in four subtle suggestions, sprinkled throughout my novel? Our stories have very different lives inside our heads than they do on the page. Something we believe to be obvious is not necessarily so to the reader.

What can we do, then, to identify a crime we’re not even sure we committed?

In Grub Street’s Novel Incubator, students place each scene from their novels onto an index card. And no, pre-existing Powerpoint presentations are not suitable substitutions. Flipping through the cards, changing the order of the cards and removing cards makes the writer see the scene progression in a new way. Using a color-coded sticker system, students are forced to identify the key big scenes not only for plot but for characterization and theme. Like dusted fingerprints, missed scenes reveal themselves.

There’s also the South Park strategy. In brief, the strategy requires the writer to use one of two words between scenes: therefore or but. Each scene must either create a direct consequence or create a direct drawback. No ands allowed. While this is particularly effective in highlighting unnecessary or redundant scenes, it’s also excellent at pinpointing therefores that go nowhere, scenes that should result in a consequence that never occurs.

Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter also have some excellent suggestions in their book, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. They advocate writing outside the story, that is, have your character write diary entries for the time both preceding the story and during the story. They further suggest having the character write a letter to someone not in the story, telling them what is happening in the story and then another one to a character within the story. Is there a confrontation that’s summarized? How much happened before the story started? Is the story finished or is there more to tell at the end?

These methods are ingenious for identifying missing scenes. All require the writer to get outside the story and see it in a new way. Sometimes that’s possible, sometimes not. But as with so much in writing, the additional solution lies in having a group of dedicated and earnest readers, helpfully policing your work.

4 comments

  1. tracey palmer

    I have missing confrontational scenes in my novel! Thanks for reminding me that I need to suck it up and write them. Really helpful kick in the pants! Thanks, Sharissa.

  2. Great post, Sharisa. You’ve touched on issues that aren’t always discussed, but oh so important in the revision process. When you live with your own novel for so long, it’s hard to see what’s missing–perhaps easier to see what’s extraneous (if you are willing to kill a few darlings.) But knowing how much detail to include in a scene is especially challenging, so it’s neither too much nor too little, even if you do take the therefore and but route. Good luck with the next go-round of your novel!

  3. bonnie waltch

    So true! This is why readers are so important – it’s hard to see what’s missing when you’re deep into the story and those missing scenes are in your own head.

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