Monday Musings: When in Doubt Change Scenes

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by Kathleen Valentine

magicLike many writers I have a tendency to get so enthralled with a story that I write furiously until, suddenly, I run out of things to say and I find myself completely confused as to where I was headed with this. I have never been the sort of writer who prepares heavy, tight outlines. If I knew exactly what was going to happen all the time I’d lose interest in my stories. Writing to see what happens next is both exciting to do and makes for exciting stories – with the proper amount of rewriting and editing, I think. Most of my favorite writers tend to write this way.

I remember hearing Stephen King telling a story that has stayed with me for years. He was driving through a rural part of Maine when he noticed some small problem with his car so when he got to the next service station he pulled in and told them what was happening. A mechanic took a look at it and assured him it wasn’t a problem but he needed a little time to fix it. While he was waiting King walked around the back of the station and saw that there was a river running behind it. He sat down on a rock and began thinking about what would happen if he were to fall in the river and be washed down stream without anyone noticing. The longer he thought about it, the more intrigued he became. Later he began writing about it and the next thing he knew he had a book started. This is how much of the most interesting writing happens.

A couple years ago someone on a Facebook page started talking about the old PA Dutch tradition of Belsnickel and I had a Stephen-King Moment. I wound up writing The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt’s Wood. It was very popular as a single novella and it led me to think more about the setting, characters and traditions of my home town and that grew and grew and grew until it became The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt. I am now working on a sequel and am still just letting the story tell itself to me while I try to keep up. However, one of the challenges to writing this way is that sometimes you write yourself into a corner – or at least a wall – and then there seems to be nowhere to go. That happens more often than I’d like and for several days I’ll wander around doing other things, annoyed with myself for not knowing what to do next. Then I remember another of the Great Writing Mantras that has served me well throughout my writing life: “When in Doubt, Change Scenes.” It almost always works and makes the story so much more interesting. So why do I forget it all the time?

Writing is a process of world building and, as such, you always have the option to introduce a new dimension to your world. It is rare that if I stop the scene that seems to have stopped by itself anyway, and switch to a new POV or take up some different action that everything does not become exciting again. Plus it helps to avoid the old what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation narrative (“…and then we did this and then we did that and then we…”) One of the joys of this project is that there are so many quirky characters that there is always an interesting place to go.

So, I’m starting a new scene this afternoon and am very eager to see what will happen. One of the things I love most about writing is the movie-in-my-mind that reveals itself as I write. Sometimes one of the characters will just take over and, though my fingers are doing the typing, somebody else is at the helm. That’s when I can hardly wait to get to work.

Thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Monday Musings: When in Doubt Change Scenes”
  1. I too have that movie playing in my mind when I write. In last novel I had some trouble because I didn’t know how the book would end. One of my reviewers said that the ending was “predictable.” I was a little taken aback, as I didn’t even know it would end that way until it did.

    When I find myself up against a wall or board with what I’m writing (the worst horror of them all), I add a new character in or as you say, change the scene.

    Readers will see that all of sudden someone will drop something, or there’ll be a crash outside or an explosion. I like action. Which is why I like Turner’s painting so much. We as writers have to remember that if we are dull or bored with the writing -then so are the readers.

    I should add a caveat, I have characters like Doc in my first novel, Seven Murders In Sussex, and Bea in my second novel, Death And Disappearances. They go on and on and on and on, and even though I have argued with them to shut them up – some characters are going to say wha they want, and we need to just let them.

    That’s the trouble with this kind of writing. I had a famous agent recently say he was interested in the novel,but he wanted to cut out some of the dialogue. I couldn’t do it. My characters would never forgive me, nor let me sleep,so sometimes the work prevails over the profit. Another sad truth of we writers.

    Do we fall in love with out words? Probably more often than not and I don’t disagree with the Editor’s blue pencil.

    I don’t often know why things need to be said when they are in a book. It’s what Flannery O’Connor calls “anagogic” which means many layers. Often it is my readers who tell me what the book means – or rather, what it means to them.

    Thank you for you blog article, as it’s got me thinking – and that’s a good thing.

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