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When your writing feels flat

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Adela, May 10, 2021.

  1. Adela

    Adela Minstrel

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    What do you do?

    I've been working on something for a long time and when I finally wrote some scenes I'd been planning it just feels emotionless and empty. Maybe it's that I've read them over and over? Maybe I took too long to write them? How do you inject some feeling and life into your scenes when they don't seem right?
     
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  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    There's two ways to look at any given unit of a story (whether it be sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, or even character arc): as an individual component and as part of the greater whole. A sentence that is purely mechanical can be pretty boring, but that boringness can be just what the reader needs at that moment. If everything is action packed/emotional/high tension/etc all the time, then they have less impact. Sometimes you need scenes that do the most basic things like move characters from point A to point B because that's all you need to do. So don't feel like everything has to be the same amount of emotional whatever.

    Unless, of course, these scenes need to be. If your scene where character X confesses their feelings to character Y feels flat, then there's multiple reasons that could be. Maybe a character isn't developed well enough for you to write dialogue that feels in character for them, maybe the setting or tone of the scene is off, maybe you just can't think of the right words at the moment. But it's also okay if you can't figure that out just yet. If you sit on these scenes and force yourself to "fix" them before moving on, you're never going to finish your first draft, or you're going to have a "perfect" scene that may ultimately need to be altered later due to solving some other issue. Part of the creative process is learning to accept imperfection. Make some notes on the scene as to what feels wrong and come back to it once you finish your first draft and start to edit. You can then look at these scenes in the greater context of your story. You'll be more familiar with your characters, which makes it easier for dialogue/actions to be "in character." Or maybe you'll discover the need of a scene to be emotional isn't as critical as it first seemed to be.
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    There are a bunch of resources on how to write a scene. I would choose one or two, then take apart what you've written.

    For example, what is the goal of the character in this scene? What do they intend? Now, what keeps them from that? How do they respond to that obstacle, in a practical way? How do they react, in an emotional or spiritual way? What in the response leads into the next scene?

    Then go back through it and pay attention to the emotions. How is the character feeling about their goal, the situation, the people around her, etc? What is she feeling during the action in the scene?

    In general, I try to put myself not quite inside the character's head, but at the character's shoulder (at the least). I need to feel what she's feeling. The scene needs to matter to me as the author. If that's not happening, I can't expect the reader to feel anything either. Do too many of that sort of scene and the reader puts the book down and doesn't come back.
     
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  4. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

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    Short answer: you keep writing

    Longer answer:
    First off, it depends on who thinks the writing feels flat. Do you think so or do your readers think so? If you are thinking this, then it can simply be the case that you are too close to the writing to judge it. From what you're saying, these scene's have been in your head / outline a long time. As with any emotion, if you have it in mind too long it loses its impact. I remember Brandon Sanderson remarking on his big emotional scenes that he doesn't feel the impact of them all that much. Simply because he has planned and plotted them out. He knows what's going to happen and why. He's gone over it a dozen times in his mind. So when he actualy writes them, they have lost their punch. His solution is to give the writing to his critique partners and let them tell him if it's good or not. It's the only way if you're that close to it.

    Then there is the fact that great writing isn't written, it's rewritten. Few people write perfect first drafts. They are the exception. Back again to Brandon Sanderson (simply because he's very open about his process and thus a great resource). He often mentions how his first drafts are pretty bad. And how the prose from his friends he admires is that great not because they write amazing first drafts, but because they are really good at rewriting. So, finish your story, set it aside for a while and then improve it when rewriting.

    Another thing to look at is how you set up the emotional scene. As a writer, you have to earn the big moments, otherwise they will feel flat or simply the author interfering and telling the reader what they must feel. If you want to have your readers cry at the end of the book when a character dies, show us how much the protagonist cares for this character throughout the book. If you want a heroic victory over the big bad guy because the hero figured out how to do X, then first show us the hero failing to either defeat the big bad guy or failing in a similar situation. And foreshadow that X is possible if your hero can work through his own internal problems and come out on top.

    Lastly it might be that you're not good enough a writer yet. Now, don't take this as harsh critisism or to disparage you. I haven't read any of your works, so I don't know. I can only look at my own writing. And there I know I am not a good enough writer to get the most out of my big, emotional scenes. There is nothing wrong with that. When I pick up my guitare I don't expect to be able to play Queen perfectly just because I've listened to their music countless times. The same goes with writing. It's a skill. It takes practise to improve it. The only way to get better is to write, ask for feedback and improve each time you write. So do that. Ask someone for feedback on your writing (preferably someone who reads your genre, and maybe someone who knows writing or editing), take what they say and see where you can improve. Once it's the best you can make it, go write the next piece and keep improving.
     
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  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I'd be awkward and reply with another question. How do you write? By that I mean, do you plan out your story in detail then write each scene, or do you shoot from the hip and see what happens as you write?

    I'm not someone who can plan my writing in detail, for me it doesn't work like that. Its more a shoot from the hip type of process, even though I have a general idea of where the story will end up and why. I tend to write the various key scenes and incidents first. In doing so they can appear flat because, to take an example, I just write the conversation between two characters. No details about tone of voice, or facial expressions, or physical reactions. The same for action scenes, I just write what hapens or what a character does. Nothing about what they're thinking or feeling, what they see. Those extra details I add later. I add other scenes and connecting passages later as well and when I do so I add background details, both to the stuff I wrote earlier and to the bits I'm writing.

    What I'm trying to get at is that for me the scenes come alive as I add more and more detail to the basic skeleton. So I don't worry very much if the first draft of a scene seems flat.
     
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  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Based solely on the question, I'd say there's a problem in one or more of three places: Your writing style, or your story/scene concept (i.e., it's boring because nothing compelling is really happening), or your attitude (i.e., you're phoning it in). The key is to figure out which it is and address it directly.
     
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  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I wonder if these scenes originally excited you because something about them seemed new, but now the shine has worn off.

    If that's the case, then you might need to ask whether they are still necessary for telling the tale.

    If not, consider removing them. You can fold any useful info or development into the story in some other way.

    If they are still necessary scenes, then maybe approach them differently. As Brandon Sanderson might say, "Go deep, not wide"—that is, plumb the depths a little more, find something else in the scenes (or add something else to the scenes, relating to the rest of your tale) that will make them seem new and exciting to you again. If the shine has worn off, this might be a sign that they were originally only placeholders after all. They fulfilled some role in the unfolding of your tale, but...that's about it. Mechanical gap-fillers. That's okay! That's a starting point, not an end point for the scenes. They can still grow into more.
     
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  8. Adela

    Adela Minstrel

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    Wow. Thanks for all your responses and kind words. I've been writing for well over 20 years and these characters are quite well developed. I think I'm just suffering crippling self doubt once again. :cautious: It mostly involves characters finding others they've known are family after years of not knowing. The revelation doesn't invoke the same reaction from me as a past, similar scene I wrote years ago. It's almost as if they are shrugging their shoulders and should say, "Okay," before moving on with their day. If that makes sense? It's probably been in my head too long and I will be able to improve it upon rewrite.

    After rereading the scenes a couple of times I did a little editing as I go (which I know it's said a writer shouldn't, but I do anyway) trying to help it, but it still feels this way.

    I write in third person, limited, so I don't tend to get deep in a characters head or root around in their emotions. That's more than likely the problem. I can't suddenly jump into their heads and tell what they're thinking and feeling. I do it through dialogue as best I can, but this time it's feeling contrived. I don't really plan ahead, I just write to a scene I know I want to happen, or I've been foreshadowing, and these are scenes I have definitely dropped multiple hints about throughout the rest of the story. Upon finally writing them, they don't have the impact I would like.

    There's a couple of these scenes within a couple chapters of each other. Is that too close? It was something I didn't intend, but felt the need to go through it to get to further action. I tend to be "over the shoulder" too, but am just not feeling it. Maybe because this is something I haven't experienced myself? But then, how many of us have?

    Imagine one of your best friends turns out to be your sister. And that your father (whom you had assumed dead) was suddenly alive and back in your life. He'd been held prisoner all this time. That's what I'm dealing with and now that I sum it up that way it sounds very convoluted. Maybe this is too complicated. :LOL:
     
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  9. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

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    I'm not that surprised by that, given other things you've said, such as how you tend to notice the plot, and not the details of the book you're reading
     
  10. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    Every body is different but when I feel something is wrong with my writing I ask other people and 9 out of 10 times they don't see what I do. And if I am correct they help me fix it. The critique on here is not to be sniffed at and the betas are very helpful.
     
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  11. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    Well, the first reaction is going to be one of shock. And, depending on what each person's shock reaction looks like, it may very well be a flat sort of conversation. If there is one at all. People may just sit or stand there, not really knowing what to say or do. Later there will probably be a lot of conversation, spread over several occasions, but maybe not immediately.

    I'd also ask you if the characters have had hints dropped to them, or if its only the readers who've been given hints. If its the latter then the characters should react with surprise and shock, but if its the former then some characters will simply nod whilst others will be shocked.

    You might also want to consider using a slightly different third person viewpoint for this scene, in this case third person omniscient, to convey the characters surprise and internal reactions. Personally I find that third person omniscient gives me a little more freedom to develop a scene, but it needs using with care.
     
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  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, a character (pick just one to start) reacts to this revelation. What sort of person is this character? What are they doing at the moment of the revelation? Where are they? This revelatoin is going to derail them, but time and place matter. If they learn this in a private conversation at dinner, that's one thing. If it's over the PA system in school, that's another. If it's a chance comment at a water park, that's still another.

    That's what I mean about getting down close to the character. You don't need necessarily to feel the actual emotions of the character, but you do need to be "in" the moment. Is the sister long-lost or thought never to have existed? There are just so many questions. The answers to which are going to cause different characters to react differently.

    And that's important. You don't want characters to react the same way. Each needs to be an individual. That's just human nature. But this is story, so each reaction also needs to serve a story purpose, to raise or resolve tension. So you need to look at those relationships from the story perspective, too.
     
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  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    As a postscript and aside, I'm not one who thinks you can go over the material too many times. I as an author can and have lost focus. A scene can feel flat simply because I've stopped paying sufficient attention to it. The more I'm standing off to the side, as it were, the less intensely I feel that scene.

    For some writers, this means setting the work aside for a while, the better to be able to return with fresh eyes and a fresh heart. For others, though, it's more like cultivating a garden, and getting in among the weeds is just part of the process. When the writing feels flat, for me, most times, it's because I'm moving characters through the scene and not taking the time and care to be in the moment. I mean, I can read my favorite authors and passages over and over again and still feel it. So, too, should I be able to read our my work with the same heart. In fact, I owe at least that much to the reader. And to the story.
     
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  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    This is pretty much impossible to judge without reading it. If the assumption is that it’s actually flat... well... that could be so many things it’s crazy. It could be a matter of a few words or sentences here or there, or a total rethink of the narrative. You could check out a book by Donald Maass, an agent and writer, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Good stuff, and potentially useful.

    If a scene lacks luster, it could also mean it just doesn’t need to exist, at least as written. Scenes that change nothing are good examples of this. A story is a bit like a pinball, if it doesn’t change direction it isn’t interesting. Every scene needs to be a bumper to keep that ball moving. If the ball gets stuck, people stop playing.

    I’ve read plenty of scenes with overt emotions, people yelling, fighting, blah blah blah, and it just falls flat. Sometimes it’s the writing (no doubt about that) but, change is critical, it drives both emotion and tension, and one could argue those are highly related.
     
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  15. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, if things feel flat, I look over the scene and see if I'm "telling" too much in parts or over-"showing" in other parts. Meaning, I check if I glossed over the juicy parts and/or got long winded about stuff that no one cares about. Yes, there are 8 buttons on that guy's shirt. No one cares.

    A lot of times, thinking about the emotions of the scene helps, because the emotions of your characters is what gives things life.
     
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  16. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    If you're writing 3rd person limited, you still are in the head of 1 character, as you're only seeing what they're seeing, only hearing what they're hearing etc. You should be able to know what emotions they're feeling, even if they're not emoting them (elevated heart rate, upset stomach, chills down spine etc). But if it's two external characters (A and B) who are having these emotional scenes and your POV is observing this, they're going to probably have thoughts about it. Maybe A has always said he's been looking for his sister, it's been his main motivator through the story, so finding out that it's B SHOULD be a really happy occasion....but A isn't acting very happy. Your POV is going to think that's weird, maybe they're figuring out reasons why A is feeling that way. If we're ONLY supposed to figure out the emotions of your characters through your dialogue...then it feels like you're hampering yourself for no good reason. Unless you DO have a really good reason, then maybe you should mention that so we can help you better.
     
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  17. S J Lee

    S J Lee Inkling

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    Sounds to me you might slap up a scene in critiques forum. Give us 1000 words and we might have a look at it...I know it's best to start from the start, but that isn't possible if you want to look at a mid-book chunk... no worries... IF a few people read it and say it ISN'T flat, then maybe it's better than you think. If they say it IS flat, maybe one of us can give a pointer or two...?

    Get the same pointers from multiple people, and you are on to something?
     
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  18. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    When generating the draft or even during my editing passes I am always aware of bits / scenes / sections that don't sit well. It could be a whole scene - it could be one line of dialogue - and it might be perfectly serviceable in what it achieves, but just doesn't measure up to my demanding standards. Such bits can grind away at me like sand in an oyster shell and I cannot rest until I've turned that weak bit into a strong bit. In fact that's one of the most rewarding feelings as a writer - making a weak bit strong.
     
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  19. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    Of course, sometimes you resolve weakness by deleting it entirely.
     
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