5 Common Scene Issues (And How to Fix Them)
Editing your first draft can feel like a daunting task. But if you follow the 4 phases of editing I laid out in this article, you’ll be able to edit your draft more efficiently and cut down on the overwhelm you’ll likely feel as you work through revisions.
In this post, I’m taking you one step deeper into the second recommended editing phase: the scene level edit. During this phase, you’ll focus on making sure each one of your scenes pulls its weight in your manuscript.
So, to help you execute your own scene-level edit, I’ve compiled the 5 most common scene level issues I see in the drafts I edit, and I’ve offered solutions for how you can fix these issues if you find them in your draft. Let’s dive in!
5 Common Scene Issues & How to Fix Them
Issue #1: The scene isn’t properly structured and feels flat.
You might have made this mistake if your scenes feel flat and like they go nowhere. Usually, this feeling means you're missing at least one key element of scene structure—so, you might be lacking a strong goal, escalating conflict, or a tough decision that moves the story forward.
THE FIX: If you've made this mistake, don't worry! It doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw away your "broken" scene. Sometimes, you just need to build the proper structure into the existing scene. To do that, check out this article and ask:
- What is my character's specific goal in this scene?
- What conflict does my character face as they pursue that goal?
- What tough decision will my character face near the end of the scene?
Use what you learn from asking these questions to inform your revisions. And keep in mind that the more scenes you find with “broken” structure, the more likely it is that you’ll need to do more extensive revisions.
Issue #2: The POV character doesn’t have enough agency.
You might have made this mistake if you’ve heard feedback that beta readers or editors are having trouble feeling invested in what’s happening or that they can’t connect with your point of view character.
Another way to identify this issue is if your scenes are always about something happening to your protagonist versus them dealing with the consequences of their actions. This could also show up as other characters constantly making the tough decisions (or navigating the way forward) in each scene, not your protagonist.
THE FIX: Make sure your protagonist has agency! Let your protagonist make the tough decision in each scene. Even if someone else chooses the way forward once in a while, your protagonist can still choose how they will react to the other person’s decision or what they will do now that this decision has been made.
Issue #3: There’s too much extra stuff crowding the scene.
You might have made this mistake if there are random elements in your scenes that don't serve the overarching story. This includes things like one too many subplots or secondary characters. But can also include unnecessary description, info dumps, backstory, explanation, and/or too many words. When editing your own work, these scenes will feel difficult to wade through because there's just so much stuff on the page.
THE FIX: If something doesn't serve the scene or the story, it's probably time to let it go. Yes, this will be hard sometimes, but your story will be so much stronger for it! If you're guilty of info-dumping or cramming too much backstory or explanation into a scene, trim it down so that you're only including what's absolutely necessary for readers to know in that moment. Otherwise, save it for another spot in your draft. Also, consider what can be written in summary vs. in scene.
Issue #4: There’s not enough interiority on the page.
You might have made this mistake if your protagonist doesn’t read the same way you see them in your head. For example, in your head, your protagonist is a grief-stricken widow, but she comes off as petulant or sounds ridiculous.
You might also hear feedback from beta readers or editors that they can’t identify your character’s arc or that your character is “not on the page.”
This boils down to a lack of interiority. Readers always want to know what a character is thinking, what a moment means to them, what they believe, and how their perceptions change. For example, if your character gets fired, but we don't see what they think or feel about getting fired—or how they react—then the reader will feel cheated.
THE FIX: Show readers your character's thoughts and feelings! Make sure their internal reactions to what's happening in every single scene are on the page. Readers need to see your protagonist make sense of every single thing that happens. Check out this article and ask things like:
- What is my character thinking and feeling right now?
- How does this moment change their perception or belief (for better or worse)?
- How does this impact my character in the grand scheme of things?
Note: For some writers, this might feel unnatural at first! When in doubt, include more interiority than you’re comfortable with—it’s always easier to pare things back than shoehorn it in later down the road.
Issue #5: The POV is inconsistent (aka head hopping).
You might have made this mistake if you've jumped from one point of view to another point of view in the same scene (unless you're writing in the third person omniscient). Jumping from head to head (or from point of view to point of view) is confusing and frustrating to the reader, so look out for instances where you've shown what another character (besides your current POV character) is thinking or feeling.
THE FIX: Stick to one character's perspective per scene and get into their perspective so that you can show their thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc. When you need to change POV, include a scene break to signal to readers that the perspective is changing. You may also want to rethink how many POV characters your novel will have because sometimes having less POVs is more impactful!
By going through your draft and looking for these issues in each one of your scenes, you might realize there are some big picture things you need to address in your draft.
For example, if you realize your character lacks agency in a handful of your scenes, that might point you in the direction of sharpening their overarching goal and/or motivation. This is totally normal, and it’s actually a good thing!
The more you dig into your scenes—and the more you learn about the intricacies of your plot and your characters and your world, the more clarity you'll get about the big picture, which is good, right?
Now, there are of course a handful of other things you can look for when it comes to writing and editing your scenes, but if you just address these five issues in one of your drafts or during one of your rounds of editing, you’re going to naturally solve a lot of the other problems your scenes have.
Looking for more tips on writing scenes that work? Check out this blog post and podcast episode called 10 Tips For Writing Better Scenes.