We write because we love it, but at times it presents us with difficult challenges. From the original concept to the final edit, writing a novel is like putting together a puzzle, getting every piece into the right place. Have you ever gotten almost finished with a puzzle and discovered, somewhere along the line, you’d gotten a piece in the wrong place? It looked like it fit perfectly there at the time, but as you progress, it becomes clear something just isn’t right. That’s when you have to go back and tear out a portion and begin again. That’s how writing a novel can be. Sometimes scenes need to be moved to another part of the story entirely. Other scenes need to be completely re-written to work.
While some scenes flow effortlessly from the pen, others are a struggle, requiring multiple attempts to get it just right. This month I’ve asked our lanterns to tell us which scene they found the most difficult to write. Everyone of them includes intense emotions, and it’s often combined with physical action, giving these passages an array of moving parts.
For Mari Christie this was an easy question, but she says her answer gives away the climax of the novel, so she was a bit hesitant about giving her answer. So spoiler alert! Guess she doesn’t know how many people confess to reading the end first anyway.
“In BLIND TRUBUTE, my protagonist faces physical retribution for his centrist viewpoints, and it took me multiple rewrites to take it from an objective and dispassionate scene to a visceral one. I wrote it five separate times in different configurations to get it right, with multiple versions each time. I am immensely gratified when people tell me it gives them nightmares, because it absolutely gave them to me.”
Sometimes the author must portray an event they find abhorrent.
As Linda Ulleseit explains, part of the challenge in writing certain scenes is not having personal experience with the subject you’re trying to write about.
“My most difficult scene is in the middle of THE ALOHA SPIRIT when Manolo begins to abuse his wife. The story was inspired by my husband’s grandmother. From my mother-in-law, I know that Grandma was abused by her husband. I don’t have any details about exactly how badly or how often or even how he abused her. For the purposes of my story, the abuse had to crush Delores’ dreams of a perfect marriage and reshape her idea of a mother and wife’s role. It also had to be bad enough to rally Manolo’s family around her. I’ve never been abused, nor do I know anyone who has been. As with everything else I don’t know, I researched spousal abuse. Gradually, the scene came clear to me. Writing it was still like tearing off a bandage, but I believe the scene works.”
Kathryn Pritchett dealt with this same issue. “Writing a scene showing domestic abuse was difficult. Though I’d read several accounts that this did happen between the real people I’d based my characters on—a husband, wife and son—I kept pulling back from describing the brutality in a concrete, detailed way. Eventually I choreographed the scene so that it was more realistic. I didn’t “pull any punches” which made the scene more vital to the story’s progression.”
Our next two lanterns’ responses had less action, but drilled down on the emotional element.
Rebecca D’Harlingue explores the emotions that can be elicited by revelations of tragedy suffered by your ancestors.
“Writing the letter from one of my main characters, Ana, was both emotionally and technically difficult for me. The letter appears toward the end of my novel, THE LINES BETWEEN US. It’s the first time that Ana’s niece, Juliana, has heard from her aunt in twenty-five years. I felt sorrow writing about Ana’s own situation. I also needed to present the information that Ana had vowed to impart about how Juliana’s family had been affected by the Inquisition. To describe it was a balancing act between sensitively conveying the horror without letting it completely overwhelm the narrative. I hope that I achieved that. The book goes on from there, eventually arriving at the present time, and ultimately the ending is a hopeful one.”
Time and experience can change how we view things, which is what happened for Edie Cay.
“The most difficult scene I’ve written was in A LADY’S REVENGE, where (spoiler alert), Lady Lydia “reconciles” with her mother—when they finally speak of the shame and the withholding they’ve both felt. When I first wrote it, I had never been a mother figure. The last time I edited it, I had a baby boy. It was a big change in how I approached how the characters would see each other. I’d only ever seen the world through a child’s perspective, not a parent’s perspective. There is so much “behind-the-scenes” effort of a parent. The ways in which you consciously parent and subconsciously parent, and you make mistakes. The scene is a way of showing Lydia’s mother’s behind-the-scenes feelings, and how Lydia’s interpretations were not the mother’s intent. I hope it conveyed even one-tenth of the emotional struggle I felt writing it.”
Our last two lanterns discuss scenes that pack a lot of adrenaline, have a larger cast of characters, and physical movement between locations.
Although this scene is found in the first half of the book, C.V. Lee admits she wrote it last.
“Call me crazy for wanting to get a scene right, but it is a historical event so I wanted to do it justice. How far would I go? It was one of the reasons for my location tour (check out my video for more details). I had a question about the landscape for which I despaired of finding an answer by looking at maps and photos. In this scene, my protagonist is on horseback and being chased. I have ridden horses in the past, but never on an expensive war horse at a full gallop. There was a lot in the scene that I had to imagine to make it seem real, from the feel of the horse beneath him as they raced across the fields, and the heart pounding terror knowing death was a certainty, but desiring to escape it nonetheless.”
Difficult finales is a must for Ana Brazil.
“Every mystery or thriller has a finale where the villain is finally revealed to the reader. Usually, this reveal triggers a physical protest from the villain, because what murderer/kidnapper/rapist/bombmaker goes down without a fight? That fight might be a chase; it might be a hide-and-seek; it might be a hostage stand-off. It should be the perfect storm of the sleuth’s emotional commitment/wits/physical prowess and the villain’s desperation/fear/anger. It should include lots of action and continuous, escalating physical danger for the sleuth.
“Guess what? Those types of scenes are really hard to write. But they’re really necessary. They’re not just thrown into a finale because the “how to write a mystery” books say they need to be there. These end-of-the-story action scenes have a purpose—they satisfy the reader’s need for a physical as well as intellectual conclusion. They put a little space between solving the crime and the actual resolution of the story, and after years of writing novels and short stories, I’ve realized that many readers need a physical sequence to really accept that the story is resolved.
“But these scenes require action, and I much prefer to write about my characters’ desires and emotions. So getting these action sequences right–and making them interesting and varied, especially in a historical context–has definitely been a challenge.
“I don’t want to spoil the ending of FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER or any of my short stories by quoting from that finale action scene, but just know that I work really hard to make these scenes satisfying to both my sleuths AND the reader.”
I hope you enjoyed getting a peek into the mind of our lanterns as they toil away to produce wonderful stories for our readers. What difficult scenes have you written? Please share in the comments.
C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction featuring forgotten heroes and heroines of the past. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Alli, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can find her on Facebook @cvlee.histficwriter and on Instagram @cvleewriter.