How to Write Difficult Scenes: Five Tips for Stretching Your Writing Muscles
If you’re working on a novel, some scenes will likely flow easily – they’ll be straightforward to write and not too much of a challenge. But other scenes will be a lot tougher.
There are plenty of reasons why certain scenes feel difficult to write. Maybe you’re juggling multiple story threads and you need to manage to bring them all together. Perhaps you’ve had to do a lot of research for a crucial scene in your historical novel. Or maybe you’re writing a type of scene that you’ve not attempted before, like a fight scene or a sex scene.
Whatever the exact challenge, it’s easy to end up stalling here. You might feel stuck or blocked, avoiding writing altogether, or you might end up skipping the tough scene to write something that comes later in the story.
At some point, though, you’re going to need to make decisions about how to approach your difficult scenes. So what options do you have – and how can you make writing difficult scenes a little easier?
#1: First, Consider Whether You Need the Scene At All
In most cases, simply ditching difficult scenes won’t be the answer. But sometimes, it’ll be the best way forward.
Before figuring out how to write your scene, think through whether you need it in the story at all. Perhaps your scene is difficult to write because you’re not sure how to keep it interesting … or because it involves a lot of characters who are only tangential to the story.
Let’s imagine your difficult scene is a family dinner where relatives fall out in a major way and your main character runs off into the night – only to get lost in the dark in an unfamiliar area.
Depending on your story, it may be that the family dynamics aren’t particularly important. Perhaps what matters is the character getting lost and what happens as a result of that – so you could simply skip writing about the dinner altogether and begin your scene where your character flees the house.
Many difficult scenes are, of course, important to your story. You can’t skip them without losing valuable plot and/or character development – plus the reader might feel cheated if they’re expecting a huge showdown only for it to happen off-stage. So assuming you do need to include the scene, here are some ways to make it easier to write.
#2: Break “Writing the Scene” Into Smaller Tasks
Telling yourself “I need to write this incredibly difficult scene today” probably isn’t going to help you feel inspired and motivated to write! Instead, look for ways to make your task smaller.
Perhaps you could:
- Sit and brainstorm some ideas about the scene for 10 minutes, jotting down anything that comes to mind – without judgement. Some of your ideas might not make it into the finished scene: that’s fine! It’s still useful to get them out of your head and onto paper to make way for fresh ideas to come.
- Turn your ideas into a bullet-point outline, detailing what’s going to happen during the scene. You don’t need to stick precisely to this when you write, but having a scaffold for your scene can make it easier to see how it’ll fit together.
- Flesh out your outline by adding a few lines of dialogue for your characters. Perhaps someone makes a cutting remark or a shocking confession: you could start figuring out the words for this at this point.
Putting your scene together in this way, little step by little step, can help you get into it more gradually. Your ideas may shift as you work through the process, and you may end up writing scraps that you don’t use – that’s all fine! The important thing is that you’re making much more progress than you’d make from staring at a blank page.
#3: Read Some Similar Scenes (That Work Well)
If you’re struggling with a particular type of scene, then look for similar scenes in your genre, in published books. Choose ones that you think work well and that feels engaging to you as a reader.
For instance, if you’re writing a fight scene, look for action/adventure stories that have similar scenes. How does the author make the scene flow well? You’ll probably see it’s not all about blows being exchanged but also includes dialogue, internal thoughts, and some description – but with the pace of the scene being maintained.
You might want to print out or photocopy the scene so you can write notes on it, maybe pinpointing key moments in the scene. You could even colour-code it, looking at the balance of action vs dialogue, for instance.
While you don’t need to reproduce the exact same structure or balance of different elements in your scene, looking at successful scenes can help you figure out how to start putting yours together.
#4: Don’t Tackle Your Difficult Scene When You’re Already Depleted
If you’re feeling worn out, or if you’ve had a particularly tiring or emotional day, then it’s probably not the best time to sit down and push yourself to write a really challenging scene! Instead, you might jump forward and write something else, leaving the scene to come back to, or you could write on a different project, do some writing exercises for fun, or simply have a break from writing.
Sometimes, a writing challenge that seems insurmountable one day may look quite different the next day, once you’ve slept on it. You may find that a new idea or angle comes to you, helping you to find a way into your difficult scene.
#5: Take a Rough First Pass at the Scene
Writing a challenging scene can be both exciting and daunting – but remind yourself that this is just a draft! You can take a rough first pass at the scene and it’s fine if it doesn’t work out. You can revise it extensively, or even cut it completely and start from scratch, if you want to.
During the drafting process itself, you may figure out a way to make the scene work well. Perhaps some new aspect of the characters will reveal itself to you, or you’ll figure out a key plot detail that ties things together nicely. You might simply come across a new idea that excites you and helps you feel motivated to push on forward, despite the scene feeling challenging.
The nice thing about writing is that you get as many shots at it as you like! You’re not taking an exam here: your draft scene could be filled with every possible instance of bad writing out there … and no one will ever know. When you rewrite, you can make the scene much stronger.
In a novel, novella, or even a short story, some scenes will be more challenging to write than others – for all sorts of reasons. Don’t shy away from writing difficult scenes that need to take place in your story. Tackling these kinds of challenging scenes can help you grow in confidence as a writer, as you develop new techniques and get more comfortable with your writing.
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I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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