You’re writing a scene and it’s active and energetic. The character has a goal, he’s motivated and the stakes are high. He’s putting maximum effort into getting the job done.
On his tail are one or more highly incentivised adversaries, doing whatever it takes to bring down our hero.
Everything is in place, all the elements for a good scene are present. And yet... it doesn’t work. The action feels flat, the outcome feels predictable, and even though it’s all vivid and clearly conveyed, it’s boring. Why?
Chances are it’s for this reason: what a character does in a story isn’t automatically interesting. It might be death-defying or earth-shattering, but the stakes, the goals, the point of what’s being done isn’t as important as how it’s being done.
If secret agent Jack McCool is going to save the world from imminent destruction, that sets the stage. If all he has to do is press a button to do it, then the scale of the stakes become meaningless. Even if it’s a really big button and he has to push down on it really hard, no one is going to care all that much.
There is a tendency among aspiring writers to learn the basic techniques of producing an exciting scene, but to not put enough emphasis on having a good idea at the heart of it. A story is more than stuff that happens. A man chasing another man, no matter how well you describe the exertion, the sweating, the pounding of hearts, will read as flat and pedestrian. Doesn’t matter how keen one man is to escape, or how brutal the murder the other has planned, simply having one run and the other chase is not engaging.
In movies you can get away with it. Flashy visuals, fast editing, rousing music, all these can help manipulate the audience. But in writing you don’t have those gimmicks at your disposable.
If Jane escapes from the killer’s lair, with the killer in pursuit, and she’s in the middle of a forest and doesn’t know where she is, her running, tripping, sounds of pursuit sending her into a fit of panic... is boring writing. You might as well have them on a race track and just running as fast as they can in a circle.
Switch it up, add obstacles, show adaptation to ever changing circumstances, choices being made on the fly, consequences being dealt with, the unexpected, the opposite of what you were led to believe, and the scene will come to life.
The idea of difficulty, of danger and risk can make a scene feel like it’s got a lot going on, but those things are the same for everyone and require the same simple solutions. That doesn’t mean those solutions are easy, but they are predictable. Like a mountain climber climbing a mountain, it’s hard but it’s still just putting one foot in front of another.
The whole point of showing your character doing something, whether it’s high octane or everyday mundane, is for the reader to see what kind of person they are. So whenever a character is in a pressurised situation, the first thing to consider isn’t what would any person do in this situation, it’s what would this person do in this situation. And if they do what anyone would probably do, then you need to reevaluate why they’re the main character.
The problem is the more straightforward version (with melodramatic descriptions) feels perfectly plausible, but it makes for a dull read. Imagine a fight where I hit you then you hit me, then I hit you then you hit me, all very visually and dynamically described, until one person falls down. It’s very one-note. Whereas if I hit you, you throw a punch at me, I duck and grab your belt buckle, you try to kick me in the balls... the variation in action, the response to each other's behaviour, that makes the scene interesting and brings it to life.
And it’s not just about out and out action scenes. If Brad has the diamond ring and plans to ask Amanda to marry him, and feels nervous and isn’t sure he’s ready and you build up that anxiety all through their dinner and finally he pops the question, sweat forming on his brow as he awaits her answer... that may seem like a dramatically constructed scene, but it is not.
When you set out a goal and then achieve that goal, the emotional and physical effort is purely arbitrary. Your character might be worked up about it because it’s in their nature to be, but another person need not be. And that other person is called The Reader.
But if Brad is tense about proposing, and gets to the restaurant to find Amanda talking to her ex-husband, what does he do now? It’s when people react to events happening in real time (rather than sticking to a premeditated plan, even a difficult one) that the story becomes engaging. Because a writer controls their world and is able to make the plan work how they want. And if you make it too easy for yourself, the reader will be left unimpressed.
Whether the person running away escapes or gets caught, the journey from one end of the scene to the other should not be a straight line, it should be a constant battle between what a character plans to do and what they end up having to do.
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