Have you ever written a scene that doesn’t feel right, and you don’t know why?
Perhaps your scene inches along at the speed of a crippled snail or feels as shallow as a puddle beside the ocean. Chances are, the issue isn’t choppy prose, bland dialogue, or bad grammar (though those are all problems). Scene troubles usually originate inside the heart of the moment, underneath the skin and bones of what’s going on.
Sluggish, off, or boring scenes can often be remedied by delving into the depths of characters and remembering their goals. Let’s look at three types of scenes that may be dragging down your story.
The Slow, Purposeless, or Dry Scene
In purposeless scenes, nothing’s happening. You don’t have a confrontation that needs to occur, so characters stand around discussing meaningless topics, like their uncle who lives next to a bunch of ancient monks.
You need to get this scene moving, or else readers won’t dig it. The best way to kick-start a scene is to give your MC a goal. People always need to accomplish something, whether it’s convincing a sister to stop borrowing clothes without asking or rescuing one’s fiancée from a crime boss. Important side characters need goals too, or they become pushovers who don’t care about the plot. Without goals, they are disposable.
The work doesn’t stop with assigning your character a goal, however. If a character’s goal isn’t in danger, scenes feel tensionless, emotionless. A character must always have something to lose. The tension could spring from anything and everything. A situation as simple as a character attempting to impress his interviewer at a job fair can be interesting, as long as it’s significant to the character and he can potentially fail.
The Mechanical or Informational Scene
You’re writing away, minding your own business, when suddenly you reach a scene that feels as meaningful as the rusty gears in a tractor. You aren’t into it as a writer, and you doubt readers will be either.
Scenes become mechanical when writers concentrate on throwing information at readers. Characters end up reciting lines about a mountain stream that feeds the wood nymphs, who bring healing flowers to the ancient monks living in the tower of wisdom, which neighbors your uncle’s farm. Or worse, a character’s internal monologue randomly turns to these topics with no urging from her surroundings.
Info dumps aren’t the only problem. In order to expose the MC’s beliefs and how they change over the course of the story, writers make other characters challenge the MC’s understanding of the world. In and of itself, this is fantastic. Side characters are supposed to expose your MC’s beliefs. But sometimes writers have side characters utter words they would never say naturally. Impromptu worldview arguments feel preachy and can dry up a scene faster than a melodramatic death.
To infuse your scene with life again, return to who your characters are and what they want. If the MC’s scene goal is to steal an apple from the nearby baker, don’t write monologue about a passing dragon species. He’s focused on that apple, on survival. His thoughts and what he notices about the world must revolve around that goal. If the baker wants to protect his apples, don’t have him pull the kid aside and give him a speech on stealing and how life is more than survival. Handing the street boy over to a guard for punishment is way more efficient.
Now, if the orphan grabbed the apple and ran into a dragon species during his escape, then you could add some chopped-up bits of info. If that dragon species can demonstrate the trait readers must learn in its encounter with the boy, even better. If the baker is a super philosophical person who cares for orphans, then yes, let him give the boy a pep talk.
Everything must originate from your characters. A character’s every word, action, and movement comes from the sum of past events, logic, beliefs, and values that have shaped him. His response to the stimuli around him must be completely him. If you break that rule by forcing a character to say stuff he normally wouldn’t, readers will know. It kills the character’s realness, which leads to the loss of belief.
And that leads to a not-so-awesome book.
The Wrong POV Scene
At this point, you’ve given your character a goal and removed unnatural worldview challenges and info dumps.
And yet, the scene still feels wrong.
Perhaps you have two POV characters in a scene, the love interest and the MC. The MC is in the middle of wrangling one of the wood nymphs that serve the monks. Would the scene be more interesting in the love interest’s POV or the MC’s?
The love interest is a bystander. The MC is in the thick of the action. When a scene feels weak even after you’ve added goals, sometimes it’s because the POV character has little at stake compared to another character. Rewrite the scene in a different POV, and you’re all set!
Now, examine those scenes that don’t feel quite right. Dig to the core of your character, and infuse scenes with their desires. In this way, you can weave them with purpose and value. Once your scenes flow with meaning, you’re on your way to a believable novel.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.