The 4 Scenes You’re Not Writing and Why It’s Killing Your Story

By Clark Chamberlain

crop of folded legs, hands holding mug, open book with leaf bookmark

Has this ever happened to you?

You’ve just finished writing what you know is an amazing book. Your excitement levels are through the roof! You share it with several friends and family and then sit back and wait for the praise to come.

But it doesn’t come.

You wait more but all you hear are crickets. The fear bubbles up and you’re about to call it quits as a writer when finally, one friend emails you back. It’s polite but you can’t help seeing the words “I just didn’t get it.”

When this happens to me I get defensive and one of the following responses occurs:

“What do you mean you don’t get it? Set up a projector, I’ll be there in 15 minutes with my PowerPoint.”

“My book has a lot of complex story running between the story.”

“It’s okay if you didn’t get it, a lot of people with your education probably wouldn’t.”

Of course, what really happens is I go back and edit.

notebook with blank checklistBack to the Drawing Board

It’s frustrating to learn that portions of your book aren’t working, especially if you’ve already released it. The good news is I can show you how to fix the issues and look out for them in all your future writing.

So, what’s the best way to learn what isn’t working and fix it? First, I go back to the manuscript and get a bird’s-eye view of the story. Taking in the entire story from this angle allows me to see how each of the parts are working together.

In my writing, and the editing work I do for clients I’ve found that there are four main scenes that cause the “I just don't get it” response. I call them:

At Work, At Play, At Rest

Deep Protagonist Introduction

Why Does the Protagonist Care?

Emotional Resolution

Over 80% of the time these scenes are nonexistent. Look at your own work and see if the scenes are there. If they’re not, it’s more likely you wrote the next Transformers and should contact Michael Bay to see if he’d like to buy it.

If that's not the route you want to take, then let’s dive into each of these scenes and get them working.

At Work, At Play, At Rest

I love in medias res. If you’ve never heard of in medias res, it’s the literary device of starting in the middle. A great example is Star Wars: A New Hope. We don’t start with Darth Vader having a cup of coffee reflecting on his life through deep introspection. Instead we see a ship fleeing from a much larger one. We don’t know why and we don’t know who. We are thrust into the action.

Take a mental note that in the above scene the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, still has not been introduced. This is an example of the plot moving forward without the protagonist involved. If you are writing with multiple point of view (POV) characters this type of plot action can work as a chapter. If you are only telling from a single POV character, this example could be a prologue.

The key is the plot and protagonist shouldn’t meet on page one. For the reader to connect fully with the story they need to see what life is like for your protagonist before she gets caught up in the plot.

Let’s jump back to the Star Wars example. When Luke is introduced, he’s working on his uncle’s moisture farm. We get a glimpse of his normal day-to-day life.

Look at the chapter where you introduced your protagonist. Is she already knee-deep in the plot or are you showing how she acts in her regular life?

woman with stack of books, writing and gazing offIf you have her in the plot, you must back up and add at least two scenes. One showing regular life before the plot and the other showing her entering the plot.

If you’re having trouble writing the regular life scene, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does she do for work?
  • How does she spend her free time?
  • What does life look like when she relaxes?

You don’t need to write all three, but the more the reader understands about life before the plot the better they can connect to the protagonist.

Deep Protagonist Introduction

Imagine yourself standing on a beach watching the waves. Each wave crests and falls in a natural rhythm. You also notice that the waves are getting bigger. The crest is much higher before it crashes on the beach. These waves are like your book. You need to have bigger highs as the reader turns the page, and you also need to have the wave fall so the reader can prepare to catch the next big wave.

Use the fall of your story to deepen the understanding and connection of your protagonist and other characters. The first fall needs to be about your protagonist and should take place within the first few scenes.

We’ve gotten a glimpse of what your protagonist is like in his normal life, now we want to understand what he’s like on the inside. We want to uncover his motivation and inner problems.

To do this, we need a scene where things slow down and he can have a conversation. Going back to Star Wars: A New Hope we see Luke talking with the droids. We see his frustration on the farm and how he wants to break free and chase a life of adventure. Flash forward a few minutes and he’s having a similar conversation with Obi-Wan but this time he’s talking about needing to stay and work the farm. These two contrasting ideas show us that Luke is a real person and struggles with his desire to leave for adventure versus being loyal to his uncle.
In both scenes, we get a deeper introduction into Luke Skywalker. Look at your first act and note which scenes show the multiple layers of your protagonist. Also, note if you have spots where the reader can rest. Ultimately you want these to match.

exploding planetIf your story is just GO GO GO, you’ll need add one or two scenes where the reader can relax and take a short breath.

If you are missing scenes that show the multiple layers of your protagonist use these questions to help create the needed scene:

  • What does your protagonist struggle with?
  • What does your protagonist want to conceal from people?
  • What does your protagonist want more than anything else in the world and what are they willing to sacrifice to get it?

Take the answers and put together a calm scene where the protagonist can have a conversation about them. These scenes work best with confidantes but crying at the bartender works too. Just get them to a place where they can be vulnerable.

Why Does the Protagonist Care?

Plots can operate in one of two ways. First, they come crashing into the protagonist’s life and drag her along until the end. Second, the plot comes crashing into the protagonist’s life and she chooses to take part in it and follows it until the end.

If you want the reader to share your book they need to care about the protagonist.

If you want them to care about the protagonist, you need to create one that acts, not reacts. In short, your protagonist needs to choose to enter the plot, and they must make that choice no later than the end of act two

The reason the choice is so important is it gives the protagonist a stake in the plot. The plot will mess your protagonist up. You will continue to heap piles of problems on them and along the way she will fail and the reader needs to know why she’s so willing to get up and go back for more.

Showing why the protagonist cares can be done in different ways. You could have a similar scene where the protagonist is speaking about why she cares with a confidante.  A scene where a foil or antagonist calls the protagonist out and she must defend her actions. An argument where we can see why she will stay.

  • These scenes need to be in act two.
  • They work best when the scene is on the fall instead of the rise.
  • If you haven’t clearly established why the protagonist cares before the climax you will lose the reader.

Emotional Resolution

I need you to make me a promise right now. Ready? Repeat after me:

I, (your name), of sound creative mind promise to know what my book is doing and what emotional feeling I want my reader to have at the end.

Not too hard, right?

Now just what have you promised? You’ve promised to engage your reader and get them talking about your book. You may have a killer opening, rollercoaster middle, and lovable characters, but if you mess up the end that’s all the reader will remember.

The reader will take with them the emotional resolution, and if you’ve made them feel something, genuinely feel, they can’t help but share that emotion.

Paul Ekman’s six basic emotions include anger, happiness, fear, disgust, surprise, and sadness while Robert Plutchik lists the basic emotions as four pairs of opposites and includes joy-sadness, trust-distrust, anger-fear, and surprise-anticipation. No matter which list you choose from you need to pick one and stick with it.

Take a moment and write what emotion you want your reader to have when they read that last word and close the book. Now go to that final scene and read it. Does it elicit the emotion you wrote?

What events in the climax and resolution could you use to heighten this emotion? It may require moving events around or even changing which character was involved.

If you're missing these scenes, you may be killing your story! https://sterlingandstone.net/4-scenes-killing-story/ Click To Tweet

I know editing is a lot of work. Just keep in mind you are doing this extra work to give your reader a better experience. That’s what matters most, your reader having the best experience possible, which will encourage them to share your book with others.

Clark Chamberlain has lived on two continents, fought in the Iraq war, built homes in the shadows of the Tetons, edited a thriller between live artillery fire missions, and tore his lunch cooler from the mouth of a bear.

Along the way he discovered his purpose in the power of story. Clark’s story expertise in fiction is evident in his books, his teaching, and his superb developmental editing, but Clark is also working in nonfiction to help people break free of the negative stories holding them back.

Learn more about Clark's wild journey!

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