Have you ever written a scene that you’re just not satisfied with, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with it?
Perhaps the pacing inches along at the speed of a crippled snail, or the theme 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 substantial problems). Scene troubles usually originate inside the heart of the moment, underneath the skin and bones of what’s going on.
To find a solution, you’ll need to delve into the depths of your characters and remember their goals. That sounds fairly simple, but a boring or unnatural scene can appear in three common forms that each require different kinds of revisions.
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 banal topics, such as their uncle who lives next to a bunch of ancient monks.
You need to get the scene moving, or else readers will zone out. The best way to kick-start the action is to give your protagonist a goal. People always need to accomplish something, whether it’s convincing a sister to stop borrowing clothes without asking or rescuing their fiancée from a crime boss. Important side characters need targets to hit too, or they’ll become pushovers who don’t care about the plot. Without goals, they’re disposable.
The work doesn’t stop with assigning your protagonist a goal, however. Without stakes, scenes lack tension and emotion. 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 him and he has the potential to fail.
The Mechanical or Informational Scene
You’re typing away, minding your own business, when suddenly you reach a scene that carries as much meaning as the rusty gears in a tractor. It doesn’t engage you, and you doubt it will pull readers in 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 the uncle’s farm. Or worse, a character’s internal monologue randomly turns to these topics with no urging from his surroundings.
Info dumps aren’t the only pitfall. In order to expose the protagonist’s beliefs and how he changes over the course of the story, writers make other characters challenge his understanding of the world. In and of itself, this is fantastic. Side characters are supposed to reveal your protagonist’s beliefs. But sometimes writers put words in side characters’ mouths that don’t jibe with their personalities. Impromptu worldview arguments come across as preachy and can shrivel 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 protagonist’s scene goal is to steal an apple from the nearby baker, don’t insert monologue about a passing dragon species. He’s focused on filling his howling stomach. His thoughts and the details he notices must revolve around that. When the baker strives to protect his apples, don’t have him yank the kid aside and lecture him on theft and how life is about more than survival. Handing the street boy over to a guard for punishment will be considerably more effective at communicating the message.
Now, if the orphan grabs the apple and runs into a dragon during his escape, then you can 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. And if the baker is a super philosophical person who cares for orphans, then yes, let him give the boy a pep talk.
A character’s every word, decision, and action should stem from the sum of past events, logic, 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 blurt stuff that he normally wouldn’t, readers will know. It kills a 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 assigned your protagonist a goal and removed artificial interactions and info dumps.
Perhaps you’re dealing with two possible POV characters, the love interest and the protagonist. The protagonist is in the middle of wrangling one of the wood nymphs that serves the monks. Would the scene be more compelling if shared from the love interest’s perspective or his?
The love interest is a bystander. The protagonist is in the thick of the action. When a scene flops even after you’ve added goals, sometimes it’s because the POV character has little at risk compared to another character. Convert the scene to a more relevant POV, and you’re all set!
The Final Take
Now, examine those scenes that don’t feel quite right. Dig to the core of your characters, and infuse scenes with their desires. In this way, you’ll weave purpose into every situation and conversation. Once your scenes flow with meaning, you’ll be on track to craft an impactful novel.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 7, 2018. Updated April 22, 2021.
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.