Making Scenes Interesting In The Now
In terms of what’s going on in a scene you can break it down into three main areas:
1. What happened ‘Before’.
2. What’s happening ‘Now’.
3. What’s going to happen ‘Later’.
The most important for a reader is no.2, the ‘Now’. That’s where readers experience the story—what’s in front of them.
Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff
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.
There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don’t tell.
This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won’t automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what’s on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.
Don’t write passively, that’s what they tell you. It isn’t as immediate, it lacks energy, it is weak writing. This is all true. For certain contexts. And untrue for others.
Like all generalised statements, the idea that passive writing is bad writing is simplistic and wrong. The important thing is to decide what effect you want your writing to have at various points in your story. To be able to do this you must know the options and the possible effects (and side-effects) and choose the right one for your story. This is hard and requires learning many things. Or you can rigorously apply the same technique to every sentence. This is easy and requires you to learn very little.
The first thing to bear in mind is something no one ever mentions when discussing this subject, that there are two entirely different types of passive writing.
Don’t Overstuff Your Verbs — Unpack
Having received some interest in Minimalism (mentioned in my last post), I thought I’d share this minimalist writing technique for making verbs more active and immediate.
There are time when it’s obvious an adverb is unnecessary.
He ran quickly to the phone. It’s redundant to have quickly in there, running already implies speed, so you should cut it out. He ran to the phone.
Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to use an adverb (no, really , it is). An adverb is a modifier, and if you’re modifying the verb in an unexpected way that changes the meaning of the verb it can be a useful tool. Examples:
She smiled sadly.
His arm was partially severed.
He whispered loudly.
But most times the adverb is modifying the verb in a way that there is already another word for. Examples:
Setting the pace
A man is told on the phone that his girlfriend is in danger from the criminal types he used to hang out with. He rushes out of the house and notices how beautiful the flowers in the garden are.
This is going to slow the pace, but NOT because it is slowing down his journey to the car, which will get him to his girl etc.
Consider: The same man rushes out of his house to rescue his girlfriend, but he is intercepted by his parole officer who is there to check he isn’t consorting with nefarious types, otherwise it’s back to the slammer … What does he do now? (Can parole officers do that? I don’t know, I’m making this up).
Even though I am slowing down the character’s progress, I am not slowing the narrative. Because pace isn’t about how long it takes to get to the next thing, it’s how long it takes to get to the next interesting thing.
Actions speak louder than words