Editing Hangups: Question Scenes

I have a lot of hangups when I'm reading and editing fiction. This series is meant to explore my editing thought process and how can we can improve or, quite possibly, that I've lost my mind and that I'm worried too much about stuff like this. Let me know what you think in the comments.


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The Issue

For me, question scenes are among the biggest sins you can commit as a writer. I define a question scene as an encounter between characters where one person has a point to make and the other is there to receive it, by being a sounding board and just parroting it back to the original speaker. In other words, it's an info dump but with two characters kinda-sorta speaking.

While it seems like a good idea at the time, it comes off just as boring as reading paragraph after paragraph of exposition. It also makes the characters seem like parrots or so completely inept that they have no business talking to this person to start with. As you can see, I get a bit fired up with this.

Another issue with this sort of dialogue is that the characters end up playing the pronoun game, saying stuff so obliquely that the other character has to question it so that the original can explain stuff they'd plainly know about. I've also heard this referred to as "As you know, Bob . . ." scenes.

What Can You Do?

There are several things you can do to clean up this sort of lazy storytelling.

An easy fix, but not necessarily the best, is to simply cut out the repeating phrases and making it a clear, concise statement. This narrows down the repetition and feels more natural.

Another method to use takes a lot more work, but it makes it a much more interesting scene.

In one novel I've edited, two characters are talking. One knows the other's dark past, and is worried that he could be killed by the other character at any point. The other is trying to figure out how they got to that point, but has no real idea that the person knows who they are. It was a typical question scene that had the two dancing around each other, giving exposition as they went, and it was serviceable.

My suggestion was to cut out the inner dialogue, restructure the scene so that, through the course of conversation, he reveals pretty deadpan that he knows the character's boss, which would change how that character reacts to him, as well as putting the character off their game and changing the dynamic of the conversation. It made for a much more interesting, dynamic scene.

Other than that, I can just say, it's about recognizing that this call-repeat crutch is being used and restructuring the scenes to make sure they don't show up. It's the same as cutting out repeating phrases, making sure you don't start sentences the same way. As I said, a simple part of the editing process that just needs to be identified and excised.

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Justin D. Herd

Justin D. Herd is a purveyor of the weird and strange. He occasionally squawks at friends and family, but does so only under the cover of night. Okay, that's not true. He squawks in full daylight. Drinking games have been built around his peculiarities, but the truth of it is this: he is a loving husband, with two wonderful dem--children. One growls at things he likes, including pretty women. The other has started to learn hand-eye coordination. Neither had made it to the tender age of three. From there, things will only get more interesting. He spends most of his writing time either at a coffee shop or sitting at one of his many desks around his house. Any other place makes it nearly impossible for him to write. He uses horror movies and rock music to help get the juices flowing. His favorite authors are Jeremy Robert Johnson, Alan Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Justin Cronin, and Patrick Rothfuss. He consumes most of his books through audiobooks, but still loves his personal library and getting lost in the printed word.