Missing Scenes

Sometimes when I’m working through a revision, I realize I haven’t given an event or a character proper consideration. The book suffers because I’ve buried in ‘telling’ certain events and characters who should have been ‘shown’ in scene. These are missing scenes, and one of a writer’s key revision tasks should be to recognize and breathe life into them.

What got me thinking about missing scenes was the discovery of two scenes before and after a climactic set piece in my novel that I realized were missing. I alluded to the events but never dramatized them, and it was only after revising this section again and again that I realized how dramatic these events were in their own right. Once I rendered them in-scene in real time, it was clear that the tension and stakes surrounding that set piece were made even higher and more dramatic than before. Moreover, the missing scenes added connective tissue that strengthened the novel’s structure.

So how do you recognize missing scenes? 

I imagine most writers—especially of plot-driven books—generate scenes by thinking through the events of their novels logically. Because this happens, that happens, which causes this to happen, resulting in that happening, and so on. Not every event can be captured in-scene or our books would be endless chronicles of the mundane, so we summarize or even skip those events that seem less important, and in doing so, we don’t always make the right choice of what to keep and what to skip.

Of course, not every scene needs to be a step in a logical flow, especially in more character-centric or literary novels, because characters are not always logical. If they weren’t driven occasionally by quirks, passion, rage, mind-altering substances or events beyond their control that make them do illogical, impulsive things, our characters—and our novels—would not be as interesting. Because character-driven novels don’t necessarily depend on causal links from one scene to the next, recognizing the missing scenes in your characterization becomes that much harder. 

Here’s what I do:

  1. Review Dialogue for events in the past that are discussed but never shown in scene, especially if they have an arc of their own—a beginning, middle and end. Every scene needs an arc and finding an arc in a story told by characters can be the key to discovering a missing scene. One missing scene I discovered recently involved a spy discussing with his handler how, days earlier, the handler had abducted the spy’s loved one to make him continue doing his nefarious job. I had never written this in scene because it had always seemed that the result of the abduction—forcing the spy to do his hateful job—was more important than the event itself. I realized, however, that without seeing the event, the reader only saw his unappealing bitterness and not how he got there. By writing the scene out, I was able to show this character’s initial shock at the abduction as it happened and how the abduction changed him, moving him from being in command to being in despair.
  2. Review backstory, looking for past events that are summarized. Sometimes, backstory written in narrative summary is necessary to explain a character’s current behavior, motivation or situation, but backstory can get out of hand, which risks stalling the momentum of the present story and knocking the arc out of its trajectory. Backstory can put readers off so they put your book down. But inside that backstory, there might be missing scenes, every bit as dramatic and interesting as what’s going on in the present, that should be rendered in-scene and placed chronologically into the stream of events. I don’t know how many times I’ve started writing a chapter, only to realize I begin by reflecting on past events that that are necessary to understand what is about to happen in the present. To avoid having pages or even paragraphs of backstory, I’ll skip to an earlier part of the book, write that backstory in-scene and insert it where it belongs chronologically in the story.
  3. Start in the right place. Often, missing scenes will be found in the events that precede the beginning of your book. Yes, it can be a good idea to start your book in medias res or in the middle of the action, but not if you are sacrificing scenes crucial to the understanding of character, setting and context necessary to get your readers off on the right foot, feeling like they have a command of the situation and the stakes. If you employ a lot of backstory at the beginning of your book, that may be a sign you need to start the book earlier in time.
  4. Look at events skipped in time. Most books aren’t written in real-time, the events of the book taking only as long as it takes you to read the book. Most books cover longer period of times—many books, years or decades longer. Necessarily, they skip through events in time, touching on the ones the author deems most important to the story. The danger is that you might end up giving short shrift to intevening events that might be crucial to establishing plot points, character development and motivation or context. Review wherever your book jumps in time and imagine what’s happening in those intervening times. Play out some of those scenes in your mind, reflect on how they transpire, see how characters react and respond to those events. Buried there could be missing scenes that are more interesting than the period your book is jumping to, or at the very least, crucial to better understanding what’s happening in the sections you do present in-scene.
  5. Discover character development opportunities. If your readers complain that a particular character seems two-dimensional or unrelatable, a short scene, strategically placed, can flesh out that character, highlighting their demons, passions or conflicts. Give your readers a glimpse into how a character behaves under circumstancers somewhat apart from the logic of the plot—for instance, how they handle a typical life event or an unusal encounter. That may be all that’s needed to satisfy the reader’s yearning to know what makes a character tick, allowing them to empathize and relate to them. For instance, there’s a scene in my book where my protagonist is on a subway train. I could easily have taken the reader immediately to the character’s destination, but instead, I added a brief encounter with a panhandler on the train that, I hope, gives the reader a better understanding of where my protagonist’s sympathies lie in the midst of a life-changing day for him.

In the checklist of problems you look for when revising your novel, take a pass through your book looking for missing scenes. Discovering these scenes can make the difference between a book with a leaky plot, fuzzy timeline, erratic pacing and flat characters, and a richer novel with a story that’s more linear and easier to follow, and characters that are more fully fleshed out. 

2 comments

  1. Anna

    Mark, thank you for this excellent advice. It’s always possible to write a scene without knowing exactly where it will eventually land. I write a scene as soon as I know the narrative needs it (or even might possibly need it), park it somewhere, and then (after the necessary ripening time) find out where it belongs and put it there, tweaking as needed.

  2. Marc–a great analysis of how to find the places to include missing scenes. Sometimes, I find it’s necessary to write out a scene deemed as missing, only to cut it later. But in the process, one might end up enriching an existing scene based on what one has discovered by writing the missing scene. No writing is wasted if it helps the author to improve his/her story!

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