On the Engine of a Scene

Over the weekend I finished editing my first draft of the second Jupiter Pirates book, tentatively titled The Treasure of the Iris. It’s now in the hands of my wife, a careful reader and ace editor, and will then go to my kid, who’s both of those things plus a one-boy focus group.

I learned something new in struggling with some scenes in JP2, and getting through that struggle let me put a name to the issue. (I’m sure other writers have their own names for the problem, but since this was new to me I’ll stick with my own terminology.)

I did a pretty detailed outline for JP2, as I now do for everything. The pivotal scenes in the book came pretty quickly once I got to them — which was no surprise, since I’d had them in my head since before the outline existed, and had been sub- or semi-consciously working through them for months and months.

Where I got bogged down was in some of the smaller scenes — the quieter moments leading us from Point A to Point B (or from T to U). Several times, the writing slowed to a crawl and I alternated staring at the monitor with even less-productive fits of self-loathing. Sometimes I advanced by writing a couple of hundred or just a couple of dozen words a day until I escaped. Other times I’d tear the whole scene down and start over. Neither approached worked particularly well.

Until, finally, I realized what was wrong: Those scenes were missing an engine.

I knew why the scenes were there: They had to advance the plot, or introduce a character or concept. But that’s not the same as the engine.

The engine, as I came to think of it, was why the scene mattered — why it belonged there beyond reasons of simple exposition. The reader had to leave the scene not just further along in the plot but also more invested in the story. He or she had to think differently about one or more characters, or have a new perspective on one of the book’s themes, or be in possession of something that was both real and resisted easy definition.

Once I figured this out, I stopped scrapping and clawing for forward progress or resorting to sullen teardowns. When I got bogged down in a scene, I stopped and asked myself what the engine was.

Most of the time there was an answer, which was good news: It meant my instincts had been right when I included that particular bit of action in the outline. But my execution needed some work — I’d been buffing a hood with nothing underneath it, and it was no surprise that the car wouldn’t move.