Sometimes a scene in a story has nothing wrong with it (nothing obvious, anyway) and yet it doesn’t work. It’s a necessary scene, important to the story, but it feels flat and uninteresting. People who read it will notice it’s a bit lacklustre, but not really know why, or how to fix it.
Usually it’s a more sedate scene, a moment of discussion or reflection, maybe dialogue heavy, but artificially turning it into an action scene doesn’t feel right.
For those instances, I offer the following techniques to make a flat scene more immediate and engaging.
1. Silent Movie — Read the scene so you know what it’s about (of course, if you’re into revisions you probably have it memorised anyway). Put the text aside and go over the scene in your mind without any dialogue. View it like a silent movie. What are the characters doing?
If they’re sitting at a table, or walking in a park, something arbitrary and meaningless, then consider giving them something more interesting to do. You can talk and do stuff at the same time.
2. Actions Reveal Character — Whatever it is your characters are doing (even if it’s just sitting down chatting), does it tell the reader something about the character? If characters are just doing stuff the way anyone might in that situation, you are wasting an opportunity.
In real life, people do what needs doing. In fiction, they do whatever you decide they should do.
Let’s say Ellen is talking to her daughter Kelly about going to the school disco (do they still have those?). In order to make it feel less static, maybe Ellen is washing the dishes as Kelly begs to be allowed to go.
If Ellen is just washing dishes in a normal fashion, even the most beautiful prose won’t make it very interesting. However, if she starts off inspecting dishes that have already been washed and are stacked in the drying rack, chooses one she feels isn’t washed well enough, and then re-washes it (all this happens while she argues with her daughter), then that tells you something about the kind of person Kelly has for a mother.
That kind of opportunity is available in every scene you write.
3. Opposition — Whatever a person is doing, just telling (or even showing) the reader what’s happening isn’t enough to make it interesting. Sometime it is, if the thing they’re doing is unusual or unexpected, or educational or illuminating. But if you introduce a difficulty into the process, if there’s someone or something working against the protagonist accomplishing their task, it becomes more interesting.
This doesn’t have to be anything to do with the main storyline or the antagonist. If your MC offers a girl a cup of coffee and then finds he doesn’t have any in the apartment, that’s enough to make an everyday nothing scene into a pivotal moment.
However, problems shouldn’t be so easy that they can be instantly and predictably solved. And how your character fixes things should again in some way reflect who he is as a person. Don’t waste an opportunity to use action to reveal character.
4. Don’t Hold Back Information — If there is some element of the story you’re holding back, try stating it clearly and unambiguously. This may feel counter-intuitive, but raising curiosity by implying there’s a secret to be learnt is a difficult thing to get right, especially for less experienced writers.
In most cases knowing what a character has learnt, or what’s driving them to do what they’re doing, makes a story stronger and more engaging. I’d say 90% of withheld information doesn’t live up to the build up. It’s far easier to tell if a plot point works if you reveal it as soon as the character becomes aware of it. And if it doesn’t work, dragging it out and then revealing it down the road won’t make it any better. In fact it will just piss off the reader.
5. Give Other Characters A Life — Having one character hold court while everyone else just feeds them loaded questions can end up feeling contrived and unrealistic. Your main character is obviously the most important person in the story, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to treat them like the centre of the universe.
Not that you should create multiple subplots and tangential storylines for every minor character, but working in details can make it feel more immersive.
For example, if a cop visits a witness, they don't have to be just waiting, doing nothing (although unlike Law & Order, they don't have to be loading boxes into the back of a van either).
What a character was doing just before the scene where the MC enters can influence their attitude, behaviour and actions.
Not all these tips will apply to every scene or character, but I think most stories will benefit from bearing these techniques in mind as you revise and edit.
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