I've wrestled with a short chapter in my current revision for quite some time (more weeks than I want to think about). It's perfectly fine, good dialogue, lots of tension, a bit of violence. All the proper ingredients in a thrilling stew. But I couldn't stop working on it. Couldn't figure out why I couldn't stop working on it, either. Everything seemed right, but I could tell that wasn't true.
I stripped it clean more than once, almost rewriting it from a blank page. I worked over the dialogue every time I looked at the chapter I couldn't get past.
I finally understood the problem last night as I got ready for bed. The chapter pricked the back of my mind because it was incomplete: I hadn't put something in there that needed to be in there. It took me too long to see this simple bit of realization.
What a difference. The dread I felt opening the Word document sublimated like dew under a glaring sun.
What was missing? The chapter was a fine piece of plotting, a vital point in the story...but I realized how passive I'd left my main character. He needed something to do other than tell the truth, protest his innocence, and undergo a bit of an interrogation. He couldn't just stand there and suffer. I had to make it worse for him -- because I had to give him something essential to accomplish (argue his way out of his situation, try to get the bad guy's minions to revolt against el jefe) and then let him fail at it.
He has to want something so bad that it will hurt ten times worse when he almost gets it before he chokes. Perhaps that should be a new technique I add into my repertoire. Whenever I can't see what's wrong with a chapter, write in a worsening of the situation.
Hard to know what's missing in a room that you've constructed in your mind before committing to paper, but it's a critical aspect of polishing up a novel for someone else to love or hate. No wonder we all need glasses: we need to see some invisible creation clearly, see the words we've written to describe our conception, and still have enough capacity left over to spot what's missing. I'm glad I finally cottoned on, but I kind of wish there was a optometrist who could help with this sort of vision problem.