Writing Tip: Fix That Boring Scene With the Sandbox Technique
Having my opening pages critiqued by a literary agent showed me where my work was landing flat. In particular, the agent thought one area needed work - the dialogue I'd written wasn't punchy enough to make my main character stand out in all her rainbow freak flag glory. Since that critique I've been working through conversations, one line at a time, looking for ways to make my dialogue snappy rather than flat. Last weekend, I learned a new technique to reboot a boring scene. When I reached my character's coming-out scene, I decided to give it a try—and got amazing results on my first rewrite.
I knew this scene was important to the book, not because it reveals the main character's bisexuality (this is something we know since page one, although she can't vocalize it then).
When she recounts her first kiss with a woman, she's going deep within to that core of shame she feels over being different and letting go of the stigma she's attached to being bi. She's telling her story to leave that behind and move into a space of feeling out and proud of her identity—and ready to demand respect from peers and families. She's been working up to this moment and backing away, because change is hard and it takes time, but now she's ready to grow.
So. There was no way I could take that conversation out. It was a pivotal moment for my main character.
But upon reread, the conversation felt boring and oversummarized. So here's what I did.
The Sandbox Technique for Fixing Scenes
This might make you nervous (I know I was!) but read over your original scene and then open a new document. On the blank page, write out the scene from your memory.
You won't remember everything, but you will remember what's most important. The way a character guesses something she didn't know, or catches a friend in a lie. How she struggles to hide it by turning away or retouching her hair. How she thinks twice about calling him out on it, then says, "You know what? It doesn't matter" when that's not at all what she means.
In trying to recapture the essentials, you'll naturally strip away those details that clutter the scene. And you'll also find some surprises as your characters start interacting in the new scene without the pressure of the surrounding scenes, the setting, and the details. What was flat will fall away, and your characters will reveal what's important and necessary.
When you get stuck (as you will, because who can remember the fine points of a long conversation), ask yourself what the character would do or say next and keep the scene moving toward the end.
The sandbox technique works because it allows you to re-envision that boring dialogue on a fresh page. It gets you out of that editing brain and back into the writing brain, and it gets your characters back to playing. Instead of polishing one line, then the next, then the next, you can rewrite the whole thing knowing, say, this is the conversation where she finds out he lied. What do the readers need to carry away from this conversation?
Once you've got the new scene, polish it up and put it in the novel. You might need to tweak some details or set the scene so we don't have characters talking in space (unless that's your world), but you can probably recycle material from your flat scene. Surrounded by fresh dialog, the new scene will bring momentum to that critical moment and help you get out of a stuck place.
Is Your Scene Flat?
Struggling with a dialogue-heavy scene? Read it to yourself. Pay attention to how the characters relate to one another. Are they:
Saying obvious things, like "I'm really mad at you right now" ? - This tells us nothing interesting about their POV
Using dialogue to get across back story? - You may have an info dump
Talking just like you would to a friend, complete with all the boring details? - Readers don't want to read hyper-realistic dialog, complete with "ums" and "you knows"
Exclaiming in dialogue tags rather than using their words to get across tone and motivation? - Ditch the "she grunted" and "he yelled" and shine your dialogue so it conveys emotion for you
Finally, are you bored halfway through the scene, skimming the prose so you can get to the big payoff? If so, any of these ring true, rewrite the scene using the sandbox technique.
If you're not sure whether this is right for you, give it a try - then read both scenes and see which one best embodies the spirit of what you're trying to get across. I was reluctant to test this one out, but I did and now I'm a convert to the technique.
Thanks to Gabriela Pereira of diyMFA for her inspiring revisions talk at the Writer's Digest Conference - she shared this revision technique and others.