Spinach scenes (and how to deal with them)
So some scenes are delicious and chocolatey and wonderful, and from the moment you think of them, you can’t wait to write them. And then there are other scenes which are perfectly ok. They’re not scenes which make you go crazy with joy, but they don’t make you want to die either. They might not be chocolate, but hey, maybe they’re peanut butter on toast. And some scenes? Some scenes are spinach scenes. You go to write them, and suddenly you’re sitting there reliving that old argument with your mother and staring at that odious leafy green stuff in front of you, silently begging it to please please please just go away forever.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you hit one of those dreaded spinach scenes:
Firstly, is this really spinach, or am I just stuck? Maybe you have unanswered questions about the narrative that are bogging things down, in which case it might be time to have a brainstorm and see if you’re missing something. Or maybe things aren’t quite going in the direction they’re meant to be going in, and it’s time to backtrack. Or it could just be that this one particular scene is making you furious, and it’s time to set it aside for a while. There’s a chance your spinach scene isn’t really a spinach scene at all - it could just be a scene that you really, really shouldn’t be writing right now, for whatever reason. Try writing something else. Or better still, go take a walk or talk to a friend for a while.
But what if you come back to it and it's still as spinachy as ever?
Does this really have to be here at all? Often spinach scenes are actually just unnecessary scenes. Scenes can easily start feeling spinachy when they’re full of stuff that isn’t actually doing anything to advance the story: maybe it’s a flashback that you don't actually need after all, or a conversation that goes nowhere, or your main character travelling uneventfully between one place and another. It’s often stuff that seemed to make sense before you sat down and tried to write it, but now you’re trying, it’s turned all leafy and bitter on you. It’s always worth asking whether it would make a substantial difference to the story if this scene just wasn’t there. And if the answer is no, then congratulations! You’ve avoided writing a scene which you probably would have cut later anyway. Now you can use the time you’ve just saved to write a more interesting scene. Hooray!
But what if the spinach scene really, really has to be there?
What’s the quickest possible way to get through this scene? Is there a way to hide the spinach so that it doesn’t seem like spinach? I regularly cook for an eight year old who is very particular about spinach most of the time: particular in that she wants it nowhere near her food ever thankyouverymuch. But that’s if it’s, say, a bunch of obvious green leaves in a salad. What happens if I chop it up extremely small and quietly put it in the pasta sauce without making a big deal about it? She’s none the wiser and eats it all. Spinach scenes can be like this too. Maybe you have a massive pile of information that you need to get across so that the next few scenes make sense – could you cut it up into little pieces and slide it into some interesting conversations or evocative descriptions and avoid that big fat infodump? Or maybe some of those annoying, spinachy scenes actually spinachy because they're full of stuff you're spending too much time on. Say your main character spends three days wandering round the city on an unsuccessful search for her runaway younger brother. There’s nothing wrong with that as part of the plot. However, if you're trying to put every single minute of those three days of frustration into the actual narrative, things could get repetitive, and repetitive scenes are often spinachy. Can you skim through all this stuff in one paragraph instead? Is there one detail or conversation which encapsulates every minute of those three days, so you can convey a sense of them without having to write them in their entirety.
Still stuck on that spinach?
Is there a way of adding an extra dose of awesome to this scene? Is there anything you could play with or change? So there was this one restaurant where I once had the most spectacular spinach in the world: it had been fried with brown sugar until it was sweet and crunchy, and it was served with chicken with peanut sauce, and it was... wow. Let’s just say it made me revise my whole idea of spinach. How does this have anything to do with your stupid annoying spinach scene though?
Well, it's always worth seeing if you can find ways to make that spinach taste so delicious you don't care that it's spinach anymore. Sometimes I find that a scene can feel flat when there’s too much happening externally and not enough happening internally: my main character is going to a bunch of places and doing a bunch of stuff, but emotionally, she’s kind of level, which is heading us into spinachy territory. What would happen if I found some way to deeply unsettle her while she was trying to go about all these things? Or it can be the other way round, with lots going on internally and nothing really happening externally: you know, those angsty scenes which seemed like a good idea at the time where your main character spends an hour staring at the curtains in her room and worrying that her missing younger brother will never, ever turn up? What if your main character is doing something complicated, like trying to fix a broken television, while she worries about her brother? And what if her friend who she’s not talking to at the moment suddenly shows up and wants to tell the main character a secret? Could this stuff make things more interesting? Definitely. In fact, sometimes that spinach scene can end up being the tastiest scene of all.
What’s your approach to spinach scenes?