Writing the Scene that Won’t Be Written

Megan Norris Jones

Megan Norris Jones

There’s a reason you can’t write that scene. You know, the one that keeps winking maliciously on a blank screen with its little cursor whenever you open your manuscript. The one that makes cleaning the house sound appealing. That one.

It might be laziness or a penchant for superfluous online research that gets in your way. It might be because your kid keeps interrupting or because you can’t force yourself out of bed early enough to write it before the rest of the day begins. These are the usual culprits. Look for them first. But the reason for your stalled-out scene might be something else, something totally unrelated to your everyday life and directly rooted in your writing.
I have been rocking through this draft of my current work-in-progress. I’ve figured out a way to block off a significant chunk of writing time once a week and then keep the momentum going with short sessions in between. My word count has been skyrocketing. Until it started to falter. But, still, it was way more than I’d been writing before, so I kept patting myself on the back. Until I stalled out completely.

Like I said, I have one day a week with a block of designated writing time. So when that day comes around, I need to hit it hard if I’m going to make any appreciable progress on finishing this draft. But when I sat down to write last week, nothing happened. There was one scene that I’d been working on throughout my short (and I’m talking 15-minute kind of short) writing sessions, and it just kept dragging on without anything useful happening or any sign of wrapping up. So, my first task of the day was to wrap it up. I typed out a few paragraphs. I tweaked the staging. I brewed a cup of tea. Nothing. I was desperate to get this scene—and the next one—finished that day, but it just wasn’t happening.

Finally I admitted to myself that I couldn’t write the scene because I didn’t really know where it was going. I knew which character needed to discover what in order for my story to progress, but I’d never hammered out the mechanics of the thing. Would he overhear the information? Where? Would the other characters know he knew? I had no idea.

In short, I couldn’t write that scene because there was something wrong with the structure of my story. This problem can happen for lots of reasons. Maybe a character’s actions don’t fit them as a person. Maybe the internal logic of your story crumbles over this particular plot point. Or, as in my case, perhaps you have planned out what needs to be revealed but have no idea about the mechanics of the actual revelation.

If this is you, do not fear. You are not doomed, but you do need to stop banging your head against your intractable story and sit down to do a different kind of writing work. You need to focus on ferreting out your particular problem and then fixing it. Your word count will take a hit that day, but it’s the only way to move forward. In my case, I left my desk, settled into a nearby armchair and thought really hard. So hard that I fell asleep. But in the phases when sleeping and waking and thinking really hard about my story merged, my conscious and subconscious whispered together and concocted a plan to fix my story. When I got up from the chair, I still had enough writing time to pound out a summary of what I needed that scene—and the next one—to do and how. And since it had been a rough writing day, I gave myself word count credit for my summary, which brought the daily tally up to an average output day. And I got a nap to go along with my writing breakthrough.

So, if your words ever dry up despite your diligent attempts to write, consider that the problem might be with your story itself. And count that problem a good thing because stories are fixable if you’re the one who makes the rules.

And never underestimate the power of a good nap.

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