Scenes From Hell

Every now and then you get the Scene From Hell.

You have two characters who need to say a bunch of stuff to each other. There are several reveals, but also things must be concealed Because Plot. It has to be done in one scene and the scene has to end in a particular way. On your marks – start the dialogue – Go.

You’re about 500 words into a he-said, she-said scenario and it just seems artificial. So you have to break up the dialogue. Somebody do something! Find an animal who will do something animal-y to distract attention! Have it start raining. And stop raining. And start again. Anything to break up the talking heads!

Congratulations. You have just found yourself in the middle of a Scene From Hell, where you have to serve up a smorgasbord of the prose equivalent of the screenplay term /beat or /noises off while you get the characters to reveal what they need to reveal in good order. You get to the stage where Raymond Chandler’s man with a gun is a plausible interruption. Especially if he SHOOTS EVERYBODY and solves the problem there and then.

And then even when the characters are talking, they get distracted. You end up going down a rabbithole and having to delete several lines up to keep them on track – yet make it not look like you’re keeping them on track. So, how to do it?

Well in my experience, half the battle of a Scene From Hell is knowing you’re in the middle of one. Once you are aware of that, for some reason it takes the pressure off. Knowing it’s going to be very artificial frees you up to use artifice, which is what you need in a scene like this, and in spades. Occasionally, the character will lose patience with you; I was driving to work one rainy morning pondering the Scene From Hell I was currently writing when suddenly one of my characters started waltzing the other one across the lawn. OK, said I, I’ll go with the flow.

And now I’m noticing something interesting. Those Scenes From Hell often read more naturally than the ones that flow. And they get fewer comments from the editor!

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