Lacklustre Scenes—how to fix them

Lacklustre scenes are scenes which almost work. Almost, but not quite. We’ve all written them at one time or another.

Eliminating lacklustre scenes—Before the Light book cover
Novellas such as Before the Light, are even less accommodating of lacklustre scenes, due to its length.

The subtext seems to be in place. The dialogue seems to be communicating the plot and revealing character. Yet, something seems amiss. The writing seems too unimaginative, too lacklustre.

In one of my recent classes a student presented me with several lacklustre scenes. She had a strong female character giving instructions, in her high-tech office, to a male employee about some top-secret project. Everything seemed in place, yet the scenes seemed stolid, dull. Something was definitely wrong.

The usual remedy in fixing lacklustre scenes is to change the location, or timing, or to prune on-the-nose dialogue, and, in more stubborn cases, to change or introduce a new character.

Luckily, here, a change of location did the trick. Instead of having the woman instruct her employee in her office, I suggested she does this in a hothouse while trimming exotic plants. That way each comment could be accentuated by a snip of her pruning clippers. This would immediately add a deeper layer of subtext to the scene.

The student thought about it and ultimately decided to move a couple of the lacklustre scenes to an aviary, which worked just as well. It allowed the warm tone of the setting to add an interesting spin to the dialogue. 

The result was an inspired scene that ticked all the boxes. Not only did the character’s actions grant an element of irony to the woman’s tough demeanour, the new environment lent visual variety and contrast, too.

Sometimes subtext, ordinarily a good thing, can be too subtle for its own good.

In my latest novella, Before the Light, I had a crucial scene in which the subtext, containing the meaning of the entire story, was too deeply burried. My editor pointed out that the reason why Icarus, the super quantum computer that holds the fate of the world in its brain, makes the choice that it does, was just too hidden for readers to see. Without such insight the scene felt limp. I had to rewrite it, keeping some of subtlety, but simultaneously leaving more clues for attentive readers to discover.

The scene immediately sprang to life. It became the punchline of the story.

Summary

Consider changing the location, timing, background action, or replace a character altogether to pump up stolid, lacklustre scenes.

2 thoughts on “Lacklustre Scenes—how to fix them

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting post. Changing environments can be effective. However The character’s traits must be so defined that it is impossible for the viewer or reader not to love or hate the characters. It is a universal truth that the villain / anti hero of a story is the most fun to write. A effective villain leads to satisfying payoffs. In wolf of Wall street – Instead of simply firing the intern for cleaning his fish bowl Donnie publicly humiliates the victim by eating his live Gold fish and making fun of his bow tie. This scene makes us hate Donnie’s guts and also makes us feel good when the FBI finally arrest him in the same office he humiliated the intern.

    Also in The City of God El Ze is a ruthless , trigger happy drug lord. When street children threaten the businesses of his region he confronts them with his army of henchmen. Instead of pulling the trigger on the children himself El Ze forces one of his child henchmen to gun down a child. It’s a brutal scene – El Ze does not only demonstrate his ruthlessness but he also plants the seeds of revenge in the children who’s lives he spares. It makes the eventual ending satisfying because the children who were spared are the ones who will gun down El Ze .

    In short : No one wants to see a good guy be a loser But we also don’t want to see a bad guy be a winner. ( Make us fall in love with the hero – so that when he gets the girl or win’s the fight that there is not a dry seat in the house)

    Reply

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