Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.
People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.
There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.
There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.
This is true of both big events and small. If I owe money to a loan shark who’s threatened to break my legs, and I go to my friend and borrow a grand and pay of the loan, that isn’t much of a story.
Equally, if I wake up late for work and I have an important meeting so instead of taking the train I call a taxi and pay a little extra to get to work on time, that isn’t interesting either.
The fact a character has a problem they need to deal with isn’t the part that makes a story engaging. It’s how the character goes about solving that problem. Doesn’t matter how high the stakes are, if the solution is just a matter of doing something obvious, what you end up with is a boring story.
It can be easy to fool yourself into thinking the more worked up or concerned a character is the more the reader will feel the same, and to some degree that is true. There are certain emotional triggers that will always get a response. A scene of a child being abused in some way will make most people react on a emotional level. But if you coast on that initial surge of emotion you will find it peters out pretty quickly.
Dramatic action requires the following:
1. The easy, obvious answers are unavailable. This should be for legitimate reason, not just because the character doesn’t feel like it.
2. The way forward should be unsmooth. Obstacles, unforeseen circumstances, foreseen but unavoidable circumstances, opponents, mistakes, lies, tricks, misunderstandings... all these can be used to make life difficult.
3. Consequences help raise tension. If what a character does is going to result in unpleasant after-effects, that helps make it more dramatically interesting. If every option has some unpleasantness associated with it, a dilemma, that will engage a reader strongly.
Effort does not count as action, dramatically speaking. If the path is straightforward but uphill, that doesn’t make it interesting. Doesn’t matter how much sweat and toil is involved, putting one step in front of the other is boring no matter how physically demanding.
Physical action on its own is not guarantee of dramatic action. If two people go to dinner in a nice restaurant and have a pleasant time, that may reflect a realistic first date, with some funny banter and romantic looks (and some beautifully described food), but there’s no action in the narrative,
When you have physical action without any dramatic element you are basically providing description not action. At the same time, you can have dramatic action with very little actual physical movement.
If a neighbour knocks on the door and asks for a cup of sugar and our character and the neighbour chat while he gets it for her, even though that introduces two characters to each other in a way that is both clear and pertinent, the writing of them in the kitchen, moving around, making gestures and looks, is me describing a scene. There is no dramatic action.
If I take the same scenario, but I add an escaped convict in the house holding a knife to the main character’s daughter’s throat, telling him to get rid of the neighbour or the kid gets it, then the MC and the neighbour at the door takes on a whole new complexion.
Even though the whole scene may now occur in the doorway with neither character showing any physical movement, there’s a lot of dramatic action going on. The MC has to get rid of the neighbour without making either the neighbour or the convict suspicious—even the most mundane conversation could be filled with landmines.
Of course, our MC could just say he has also run out of sugar and the neighbour could just leave, but you can feel the tension deflate out of what could be a marvellously fraught scene. So maybe I’ll change it to the neighbour coming round to invite our MC to a meeting of the neighbourhood watch, and while she’s here she could do a check of locks and security, she’s been on a training course and it would be no bother...
The more difficult you make the MC’s predicament, the more entertaining the scene will become, both for the writer and the reader.
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