How to Fix a Flat (Novel Scene) in Three Easy Steps



By Julie Wu

So, there’s Tolstoy, and then there’s you.  And you have a problem.  You have that scene that doesn’t work, the one you keep tweaking.  That scene where your heroine, Marge, wanders through the fields and forests, reminiscing about the lover she lost in the Crimean War.*  Your mother thinks it’s beautiful, heartbreaking.  But your reader fell asleep reading it, your agent says it’s slow, and your editor says to condense it.  Dutifully, you cut the paragraph in which Marge, reaching the edge of a duck pond, tearfully unfolds an old newspaper.  But the cut doesn’t help, because now Marge has nothing to do and you needed the newspaper to describe the history of the war and its effects on the nearby city.

You undelete the paragraph and give Marge a gun. She shoots a duck and wraps it in the newspaper.  There: action and historical background combined.  Plus, now she’s outdoorsy and self-sufficient.  She gets to reflect on the tragedy of feeling liberated and yet having simultaneously killed an animal in the way an officer killed her lover.  And the past, symbolized by the newspaper, is being bloodied by the presently dead duck.  O Magazine will declare this scene, “Lyrical, gorgeously written, rich with metaphor,” and list your book as a top summer pick.

You have a vague sense that your scene is still pointless, is now ridiculous, and actually O Magazine would not even accept a copy for review.  But you can’t cut the whole scene because it has such important backstory, such beautiful writing, and incredible insight into war, womanhood, and the human condition.

Uh-oh.  You’ve got a flat.

Take it from me:  I’ve had plenty.

The fix:

1.  Locate the scene on your arc(s):

What is your novel’s narrative arc?  You’ve got one, right?  (I’m assuming you’re writing a traditional narrative.)  Narrative arc is the over-arching plot, where, classically, there is a story goal, rising complications, a climax, and a resolution. Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort, Anna Karenina wants a happy life with Vronsky.  Amir in The Kite Runner wants to save Hassan’s son.  If a scene comes before the climax, the scene should increase tension by making the goal seemingly closer, yet increasingly difficult to obtain.  If it is the climax, the goal should either be obtained or irrevocably lost.  If it is after the climax, the scene should work toward resolution of the arc.

You say Marge wants to avenge her lover’s death.  How does your scene develop the narrative arc?  Well, it does show how much Marge mourns her lover.  But though the scene seems to be fairly early on in the book, way before the climax,  it does not raise any tension, stakes, or complications, or move toward the story goal.   Hence, this scene does nothing to develop the main narrative arc.

What is your novel’s character arc?  You may or may not have one of these.  If you do, the character arc is the transformative process that is necessary for the protagonist to reach the goal of the narrative arc.  Harry Potter must overcome his fear of death to defeat Voldemort.  Amir must be willing to stand up for himself to save Hassan’s son.

And Marge?  After thinking it over for some time, you realize that she has a character arc, too.  Marge must overcome the sense of victimization she’s developed from being orphaned during a previous war and raised in a monastery by morose nuns.  Only by doing so will she be able to find and confront her lover’s killer.

Where is your scene on the character arc?  Nowhere.  She grows about as much as any person would while wandering through fields and forests randomly shooting ducks.

If a scene doesn’t develop the narrative or character arcs, it doesn’t belong in your book.

But don’t just hit the delete button.  Marge deserves more.

2. Give the protagonist a localized goal that develops the narrative arc.

Instead of having Marge reminisce while wandering aimlessly through the woods, or read the newspaper for historical context, you could give her a localized task or problem to solve, or someone to find, that contributes to the narrative arc.  She can still reminisce, but the reminiscences will be that much more illuminating and dynamic in the context of rising action, and will contribute all the more to character development.

Why isn’t shooting the duck sufficient to move the scene along?  Isn’t hitting the duck achieving a goal?  Yes, shooting a duck is a localized goal, but it does not contribute to the narrative arc.  If drawn out as a difficult hunt, it could give the scene internal tension and somehow be a manifestation of character development, but even so, the scene would still read as slow or superfluous because it still would not move the plot forward.  (Unless the duck belongs to her former lover’s killer or father, or is a messenger duck .)

So let’s say Marge has heard there are letters written by her lover.  Her goal now is to find the letters.  This goal will move the story along, because Marge expects that having the letters will give her information leading to her lover’s killer.

3.  Thwart the localized goal.

No conflict = No dramatic tension = Readers snoring, tweeting, or doing Facebook.

Should you have the lover’s letters appear printed in the newspaper, where she never noticed them before?  Of course not.  Should Marge spend fifteen weepy minutes digging through her trunk and then clutch them to her heart?  Maybe, but you’d better come up with another goal really fast. And if those letters are really down deep in her trunk underneath thirty years of tax returns and it takes her six months to sort through them, reminiscing all the while, you’ve lost me.  If you truly think sorting papers is that exciting, I’d love for you to clean up my desk.  But alas, I may not make it through your book.

Make Marge work.

For example, you can have the letters archived in the neighboring city, which is now partly anarchic.  The sisters won’t let Marge go there because it’s too dangerous.  Thwarted, Marge has to act.  She takes her hidden gun, which was her father’s (a longitudinal, symbolic detail you can develop later), and sneaks out of the monastery.   She asks an elderly couple to borrow their donkey and rides it all the way to the city to find the war archives.  She’s tailed by sinister vigilante men, and when she tries to lose them the donkey has an asthma attack (more thwarting, which forces decision and action), so she takes her gun and shoots a duck flying over the men’s heads.  The men flee, and she feels a rush of power that elates her but simultaneously makes her feel bad for the duck, and also her lover.  She hurries through the city, remembering how it was in flames when her parents died.  (Backstory that would have been in the newspaper.) She retrieves her lover’s letters, but they’re in a language she can’t read, addressed to a person she doesn’t know. (More thwarting.) Meanwhile, the owners of the donkey have notified the authorities that Marge is both a thief and an escaped nun, and Marge has to decide whether to flee with the moribund duck, the incomprehensible letters, and the wheezing donkey, or return to her cloistered life.

So, there you have it.  By locating the scene on your narrative and character arcs, giving Marge a localized goal that develops the narrative arc, and thwarting that goal, you have transformed a static and superfluous scene into a crucial, plot-turning scene that delivers all the history and backstory you wanted to show, in a way that (if written decently) sweeps the reader along, illuminates Marge’s character and sweeps her toward the climax.

You’re back on the road.

(What do you think?  Is Marge’s lover really still alive?  If he is now, I don’t think he will be by the time Marge is through with him.)


*I claim no particular knowledge of the Crimean War, nuns, monasteries, or duck hunting.




  1. How does this always happen? It’s (once again) EXACTLY what I need for what I’m doing today. So incredibly useful. Thank you so much!! (and p.s. GO MARGE! :)

  2. You got me laughing before I’ve finished my morning coffee. Quite a feat, that. Also – excellent points. From now on, when I run into these scenes in my WIP, I will forever be thinking “I need a dead duck – with purpose.”

  3. Javed says:

    Fabulous post Julie, this is something I can use today! Thanks

  4. This is great–good advice, and one of the most hilarious sample plots I’ve ever read! When you’re done with your current novel, please write that one. I would pay good money to read more about Marge, the duck, the donkey and the letters from her lover that, for some reason, are in a language she can’t read. Maybe, in the end, it turns out her lover insulted a wandering fortune-teller and she put a curse on him, turning him into a duck? Marge could have him stuffed and mounted and put on the mantle right next to the gun that went off.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Chris! I was wondering why the duck was following Marge all over the place. You’ve now explained why. But I think it’s possible that he survives and Marge can find a way to convert him back–assuming that’s what she wants after she gets the letters translated . . .

  5. Excellent, and just what I needed, tho I expressed my problem with my story to my critique group as: “I think this scene needs something, maybe a bomb to come flying through the window.” To which one writer replied, “Please don’t do that.” And that is the duck that flies over the first scene that she shoots. You have so well – and helpfully – put what it is that the scene needs. In that novel, and in a few short stories, where I have not worked on my characters’ arcs, and I have not added to the story (other than give insight to the character.) Is there a class that teaches one to develop this skill, or is it all a matter of trial-and-error in one’s backyard, learned through the school or hard knocks? I have a BA in Creative Writing but feel it taught me next to nothing (it’s fairly old and was not taught by a fiction writer and I didn’t know what I was doing when I chose that program at that location, thinking naively that all degrees were created equally…this was back in the late 70s). Do they teach this in newer or better programs today? Or do you find out on your own or die on the vine (fail the program)? Being able to write does not help one through these flats. I know pulling out these threads and restitching is a hard and tedious task, but it seems this part could be so much fun as part of a brainstorming session over cosmos, margaritas, wine or jello-shots. Why is this something done only solo? Or is it?

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Di E.E.! I’m so glad this post was useful to you. A lot of interesting questions you raise there. I don’t have a writing degree myself, so I can’t speak for the programs out there. My writing education consists of a handful of workshops, shelves-full of writing craft books, many excellent and not so excellent novels by other people, boatloads of drafts of my own novel, and comments by agents and editors. My first writing instructor, Tony Ardizzone at Indiana University, taught us that a protagonist has to generate his/her own plot through action, and that being roadkill does nothing for your story. I always keep that principle in mind, but it certainly is easier to understand than to put into practice, and it’s difficult to sustain through a novel. One of the reasons I wrote this post and the last (How to Write a Great Novel Scene) is that I wish I someone had explained these mechanics to me a few years ago. I hope they save some people some time. And no, I don’t think there’s any need to go solo. It can be helpful to discuss your plot with other writers, either over cosmos or over the internet. Even if you don’t want to take their suggestions, their questions will force you to take a hard look at your story construction.

  6. Andi Pearson says:

    I’m with Chris – I’d pay good money to read more of that plot! And this action/conflict-to-move-the-story-along is exactly what I am working on today. Fortunately, I have articles like this and Lighthouse Writers here in Denver to give me the necessary shot (not with the gun!) in the arm to keep working and creating.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Chris, I’m going to have to start a new series based on Marge. Glad she gave you that needed shot-in-the-arm. Best of luck with your work, and do keep going!


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