In Praise of Persistence, Again

A long, long time ago, someone said that persistence was the most important quality a writer needed to have. I’ve heard it since then, and I’ve repeated it because I think it’s true. There are any number of reasons why it’s true, and I might talk about them all, eventually.

Today’s reason is the scene I thought needed to be cut from the mess-in-progress. It’s now two very good, strong scenes. The first half is necessary to the development of the plot, and the development of two characters and the relationship between them. I’m less sure about what the second half is doing, beyond further character development and maybe a little plot complication.

Both halves still need work. I’m a member of an online writing workshop that includes weekly critiques, with a set of questions to be answered as part of the critique. (The same questions appearing in every critique helps to organize the information, and provides some consistency across all the critiques a valuable quality when you’re getting 10-15 of them.)

One of the questions is based on Robert McKee’s idea that there should be a value change in a scene. That is, the character should not be feeling and thinking the same thing at the end of the scene as he or she was at the beginning; there needs to be change. Otherwise, why is the scene in the story? Without change of some kind, you could just as easily–and more effectively–sum up what happened in a sentence or two. (This is where telling is better than showing.) Conversely, if something does change, that scene needs to be written out; its events need to be shown, not told.For me, the path of a value change can provide what I think of as the spine of a scene, the sense that the scene is about something, that there’s something around which the action in the scene is organized. Neither of my two scene halves really have a value change, or at least not one that I feel. The second half isn’t quite finished–I’m not sure what happens next–so I’m not feeling much concern that there’s no definable value change yet. As I continue to develop and write the scene, the value change may come to me. If not, I’ll have to go digging for it (and then reorganize the scene around it).

The first half, however, is pretty well complete — I’m tweaking it now, not making major changes — and I’m feeling the absence of the value change, the lack of a central idea. I’m not sure I know what the scene is about. I think it’s there, somewhere — it’s just a matter of figuring it out and then adjusting the scene so it’s stronger.

There was a point a few days ago when it seemed easier to cut the scene that wasn’t working and start over with a better idea of what I was trying to do. Instead, I got an idea that I thought might work to fix what I had. When I put it into motion, the results were promising but not certain, and there was a little voice whispering I should just scrap what I had and start from scratch. Instead, I kept working with the scene, working until I knew for sure it was either salvaged or unsalvageable. That’s where persistence came in and saved the day.

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