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Mirage Scenes and Oasis Scenes (and how to tell the difference between them)

Not this kind of Oasis scene

Sometimes writing a novel can feel a bit like trekking across a desert. All the scenes waiting to be written turn into an overwhelming, impossible mass, the words start swaying in front of your eyes, and you think of all hundreds and thousands and millions of steps you have to take through the sand and all the scorpions you have to dodge before you’re done.

But some scenes are exceptions. You know them because they’re the glowing ones. Often they’re the earliest scenes you think of when you first come up with an idea, the ones that define the whole project, the ones that have you staring slack-jawed into space, daydreaming about every wondrous detail. They’re full of drama and romance and magic. They’re the ones that make you keep writing, even when the heat in the desert is unbearable, because if you keep writing, you get to write them, and the thought of writing them is like the promise of the best treasure in the world.

But here’s the thing: not all of these glorious scenes are meant to be part of your novel. Don’t get me wrong, some of them definitely are. I like to think of them as oasis scenes. (Don't worry. They don't contain the Gallagher brothers. At least, mine don't.) Oasis scenes are usually a joy to write, and they remind you of that happy glow that radiated from everything when you first got the idea, of why you’re writing this project in the first place, of why you write in the first place.

But sometimes an oasis scene turns out to be a mirage. Mirage scenes seem like the best scenes in the whole novel (and possibly the whole universe) before you try to write them, just like oasis scenes do. But then you finally, finally reach the right place in the story (or if you’re me, you lose your patience and jump ahead to the right place in the story) only to realise that for one reason or another, things just aren’t working, no matter how many times you try. Maybe the chain of events suddenly seems to turn nonsensical, or something crucial about the setting doesn’t work, or you find yourself trying to force a character to do things that they would never do. And this is the most telling sign that your oasis is, in fact, nothing but a mirage: when you realise that the logic which has held the story together so far seems to fail whenever you try to write this scene. Sure, it might have made perfect sense when you first had the idea, but at that stage you didn’t know the story or the characters anywhere near as well as you do now. And it’s easy to end up fighting with it, because dammit, this scene was meant to be an oasis! You’ve wanted nothing more than to write this moment for weeks, dammit! How could it be wrong? It can’t be wrong! You wouldn’t even be writing this novel if it weren’t for this scene!

But sometimes, the scenes that don’t make it are just as important as the ones that do. After a fight with a mirage scene recently, I came to the conclusion that some scenes are beacons. They’re not meant to be part of the finished product; they’ll never fit well enough for that. They exist to provide you with that shining promise to move towards on the horizon, but once you get there, you no longer need them. And the beauty of them is that by this stage, you usually know the story well enough to easily work out what should be in their place.

Is that oasis proving to be a struggle? Let go. The beauty is all through the desert. You don’t need to chase every promise of water.

Photo by freschwill
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. Excellent post. Yes, we've lost many of those passages along the way. It once seemed sacrilegious to cut out that which we had once invested so much effort in, but in time we realise to let go. Indeed that's how I feel about a whole book I once published: it was the right thing for that time, but that time has now past. Hard letting go sometimes though.

  2. Hee hee, just found one of those while rewriting the very end of my book. Kept writing the scene from different approaches, trying to make it fit. Until I realized it wasn't the writing--it was the scene that was wrong! Wasn't wrong for the characters, but wrong for the very end since it wouldn't have time to be developed much. It may end up in another book, who knows.

  3. Great post! I definitely had a mirage seen in my most recent WIP. When I dreamed it up it was perfect and funny. I couldn't wait to really write it out. So I wrote it early (which is unusual for me, I'm a linear writer). Then when I actually reached that point in the story where it should fall, it didn't fit. My characters actions no longer made sense because of an unforeseen action in an earlier scene. So I forced it in there during the first draft (a NaNo novel so I needed the word count!) but I know it will be cut in revisions.

    1. Argh, sorry for the typos. I posted too fast. My kids started fighting just as I was writing. seen = scene. characters actions = character's action.

  4. Gah, I'm in a mess like this now. The thing is, I have this key scene that's supposed to be a trigger for a huge sequence of events leading up to the final showdown, but it doesn't make SENSE anymore - not that it ever really did. But if I take it out, the rest of the story falls apart. I think the problem is actually about six scenes before - when they set up the terms for the showdown. That scene was neither an oasis nor a mirage, but is one of those forgotten turning point scenes. I need to use it to set up for everything that follows. Raise the stakes! Increase the damage! So that my scene that keeps flopping over A. makes sense, and B. feels like a payoff rather than a cheap shot.

    Thanks for the post! It inspired good thoughts!

  5. I love this metaphor. Definitely been there / done that.

  6. Awesome metaphor for writing. It does feel like a desert, sometimes. Letting go is hard, but it needs to happen. (I've only just gotten past that mirage scene in the draft of my first novel -- there was that one scene at the end that I'd been dying to write, but now that I'm revising, I realized that it just can't work. And that's alright.) Anyways, lovely post! :)

  7. Know what I love? That sometimes you find the best advice, something that pertains to you, right when you don't expect it. I wasn't even looking for it. But thanks, because it's what I needed to hear.

    LOVE this post!

  8. One of my first scene was a mirage scene. Took me a while to see it and even longer to let it go. Great post :)


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Item Reviewed: Mirage Scenes and Oasis Scenes (and how to tell the difference between them) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin