Joe, a guy in my local writers’ group, has a catchphrase that he’ll use whenever someone reads a scene or chapter in which nothing in particular happens. This phrase inevitably results in giggles from the rest of the group, confusing the newbies.
“Exactly what happened in this chapter?”
Joe says it in a slow and scholarly manner. The reason we find it so funny is that the phrase originated from the time a former member would read long and tedious chapters out of his vampire book – chapters in which nothing. Really. Happened. Even the infamous sex chapter, which vampire guy had been promising for months would be epic, and which I also missed due to a tonsillectomy. But I heard healing from throat wounds was probably a lot less painful than sitting through that chapter.
Anyway. The giggling would commence because this particular writer would refuse to budge on even the most obvious plot problems. Everything was written in stone, and we wondered why he wanted critiques at all (actually, what he wanted was an audience to give him blind praise). Head injuries from repeatedly banging our skulls on the table in frustration were common during those dark times…
Eventually vampire guy left because we just didn’t “get” his genius. Too true, too true…
So my personal opinion is that the five most important words you can ask yourself after writing a scene or chapter are exactly what Joe will ask: What happened in this chapter?
You need to be driving the story forward, or risk your readers rolling their eyes or worse, setting your story down and not picking it up again. The sad thing is, I’ve read published books where nothing in particular happens until page 100 or so. I mean, it’s okay to take a bit of time setting up your main plot problem, but you’re gonna have to make sure something happens in every single scene to forward the story, or it’s just plain boring.
In general fiction, you can afford to take your time a bit, but it’s especially important in YA to get to the main conflict sooner rather than later. It’s this element of YA that I really love: You can read a 300+ page book that’s action-packed, since a good YA writer will know her target audience doesn’t like to wait around.
One of my favorite fixes for this problem is to answer the question with some conflict. Whether it happens in dialogue, action, or internally, conflict forwards the story. You don’t have to have conflict in every scene; in fact, that would probably make your book too tense, and therefore an exhausting read. So if you’re writing a scene without conflict, make sure you provide enough of something else to make the reader want to keep turning the pages. Maybe a tantalizing hint or foreshadowing of what’s to come. Some humor. Some interesting dialogue that answers a few questions about the mystery or plot conflict that the book’s about. A great kiss – or a scene that almost leads up to a kiss, but leaves the reader waiting for it for just a little bit longer (which probably adds a bit of conflict too).
Just as long as everything in the scene is absolutely needed as a building block for the rest of the story. If it’s useless fluff, you’ll have to cut it out, regardless of how much you love it. I’ve had too many of those scenes myself! I couldn’t bear to wipe them from existence, so I have them saved in a “deleted scenes” folder.
When you go back for the revisions, make sure to keep an open mind, listen to your beta readers (especially if they’re all saying the same thing), and don’t have the attitude that every scene is written in stone, and therefore can’t be deleted or changed in any way.
How do you guys solve the problem of a slow spot in your WIPs? Got any favorite catchphrases you or your writers’ group friends use to keep you on track?