A friend on Facebook is struggling with identity. Is this writer “a gay author” or “an author who happens to be gay?” There’s a world of difference in terms of context, audience, marketing, and on and on.
For this writer, there’s no right or wrong answer. But a decision needs to be made.
Similarly, when someone in my critique group has a scene that just doesn’t work, often it’s because the author is reluctant to make a decision or doesn’t see the need to do so.
You’re reading about the feds interrogating a suspect at the downtown FBI office. They’re in a private room and there’s mention of a desk and chairs. There’s a telephone somewhere. That’s it. It could be the same cubbyhole of an interrogation room we’ve seen in a thousand Law and Order episodes, or the ultra-modern, high tech rooms shown in CSI. Or it could be something else entirely. Maybe all the other interview rooms are occupied, and the Captain ‘s office is the only available space. Maybe the agent wants to put the suspect at ease, and uses the employee lounge (I think Richard Price did this). We’ll never know, because the author doesn’t think it’s important to establish a sense of place. A decision was not made.
In the room with the agent in charge is a young guy, an unnamed junior agent. He asks a couple questions but doesn’t contribute much. So much could be done with this minor character. One of his buddies might have been wounded or killed in the crime being investigated, and he’s seething with anger. Maybe he thinks the senior agent is an old fashioned fuddy-duddy who’s about to screw up the investigation with his obsolete methods. Maybe he was awakened after a late night at a bar, and he’s hungover. Maybe he was arguing furiously with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) when the phone rang. Maybe he’d been smoking dope, and can’t quite focus on who did what to whom. His character could change the dynamics in the interrogation room in myriad ways, but it didn’t happen. Because a decision was not made.
Sometimes you have colorful, edgy characters in a scene but it never really takes off. Chances are, the author didn’t scratch his head before writing the scene to decide what each character’s goals would be, and to make sure they conflict with one another. Mary wants a loan so she can help her secret lover, John, who she’s determined to be faithful to. She swallows her disgust to ask Peter, her repellent landlord. Peter can afford to make the loan but wants to get Mary into bed with him as a willing partner. If one wins, the other loses.
It can be an exciting scene – if a decision is made.