We all know that creating is an art, but editing is absolutely a science. Unless you understand the tools of your craft, the scientific part of what we do as writers, I’m not sure a person can ever really identify what’s wrong with something they've written.
A writer must know what should be happening in the work, in literary terms, in dramatic terms, in terms of structure, before he can identify what’s missing.
We can’t necessarily command the artistic part of what we do. Nobody can truly control art. But we can command the rest. Write like a wood sprite in a meadow if that's what works for you--but then pull out your tools and get to work making all those pretty words into something solid.
No matter how exciting we may think a story idea sounds, it’s not going to rise to the level of excellence if we aren’t in command of the craft while we write it. We must know the tools of our trade. We must have a clear understanding of the structure of a scene and how all the components fit together before we can identify when one of those components is missing or weak.
Simply reading about scene- or plot-structure isn’t going to cut it. The only way I know to truly learn anything in this business is by doing it. Not just once. Not just 10 times. Not just 100 times. But over and over and over again.
If you’re having trouble identifying what’s wrong in your own work, stop and think about this honestly—how many scenes have you crafted, being true to the “science” of scene structure? How many times have you clearly identified your character’s goals and then made absolutely certain to keep your characters moving toward those goals as the scene progresses?
Like any other artistic endeavor, writing takes practice. Most adults can string words together to make a sentence, but being a writer is much more than that. So if you’re approaching your scenes haphazardly, writing whatever seems kind of right, “kind of” understanding goals, but not really. Kind of moving toward them—but usually not . . .
Or moving toward them only by accident, then it’s going to take a whole lot of luck to figure out what’s wrong when they don’t work right.
Intending to use scene structure one of these days or to get structure into your scene by osmosis isn't the same as identifying where the support beams go and making sure the load-bearing walls of your scene are in place. Thinking is not the same as doing.
Thinking about it or talking about it won't give you the same level of skill that you’d get if you actually worked at learning scene structure, worked at writing scenes using it, and worked at polishing and revising those scenes again and again until you knew, deep in your own gut, that you had it right.
If you’re trying, then abandoning it because it’s hard, or because you don’t get it, or because it takes too long—or for whatever reason you may be deciding not to use it, then I don’t know what to tell you about how to find what’s wrong in your work.
Because the structure that I follow—that I believe in absolutely—is how I find what’s wrong in my own work.
And it’s how I identify what to do to fix it.
If you’re approaching a scene that you feel is weak and rambling, then the only thing I can suggest is to look at the scene’s structure. Does your viewpoint character have a clear goal?
Do your non-viewpoint characters have clear goals that are in opposition to that of the point-of-view character? Does the viewpoint character move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving that goal? Do the non-viewpoint characters move steadily and relentlessly toward achieving their goals?
Is the conflict clear? Is it interesting? Does it move the story forward or is it repetitive action—just more of the same thing we’ve already seen? Is it real, active conflict, or is it anticipated conflict (a character thinking about what might go wrong) or remembered conflict (a character thinking about what did go wrong)?
Are you deep enough in the character’s head and heart to convey clear emotion? Is that emotion real, or is it merely convenient for you, the author, so you can move your characters to the next place you’ve decided they should be?
Do you understand the character’s motivation? Is it believable? I mean really believable, not conveniently believable, or I-don’t-have-time-to-rewrite-it believable, or genre-cliché believable. If you were in that character’s shoes in the same set of circumstances, would you do the same thing? Or are you trying to force characters to do things simply because they sound good for the plot you’ve made up?
How much do you understand about the “science” of characterization? How much do you understand about the science of conflict and motivation? How did you come by that understanding? From working relentlessly on your own work or from reading what somebody else says about it?
Do you know absolutely, on a gut level, what comprises a strong scene? The pacing you should be following in the book you’re writing? Do you have a clear, working understanding about the layers of conflict and how best to weave them together? Because if you don’t know what’s right, how can you expect to figure out what’s wrong?
A doctor can’t diagnose congested lungs unless she knows what clear lungs look and sound like. A mechanic can’t diagnose a dead battery unless he knows what’s supposed to happen when the battery is working right. A musician can’t diagnose music being played off-key or in the wrong rhythm unless she knows what the key is supposed to sound like or understands the rhythm as it’s supposed to be.
Bottom line: An author can’t identify what her scenes aren’t doing unless he knows what they’re supposed to do in the first place. Putting the magic in fiction takes a lot of hard, gritty, realistic work.