Friday, July 04, 2014

Ready, Set...Where's the Action? Keeping Informative Scenes Tense

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

You hear it all the time. Make it active. Start with the action. Make sure your characters act. But we've all written scenes where we have to convey a lot of information and there is no action to speak of. We know we can't just flop the info out there and get away with it, so what can a writer do? How do you convey all that information and still keep the scene tense?

I like the layer technique.

On the first draft, I just write what needs to be said and don't worry that it's probably a pretty boring scene. It's critical information, and what matters at this stage is getting it in there.

Once that's done I go back and look for ways to add the "action," which is often just another way of saying tension or narrative drive. Something is moving the story forward, making the reader want to know what happens next. A lot of times this is just the protagonist worrying they won't get what they want. Whatever it is, there's something unsettling about the scene that's making the characters tense in some way, and the reader unsure (and eager) to know what happens next.

Even in a scene that has no actual action, there are plenty of places you can layer in conflict and keep things tense.


What is the protagonist's goal in this scene? They're either the one telling the information or hearing it. If they're telling it, they're telling it for a reason. What is that reason? It really should be more than just "it needs to be conveyed to the reader now."
  • Is there a way you can make the information or the reason for telling it now adversely affect the scene goals? 
  • Is there a chance the person hearing it won't like it, or won't do what the protagonist needs them to do? 
  • Is there anything about the scene that can cause the protagonist to fail at their goal if they reveal that info now? 
  • If they're the one hearing the information, does that information affect their goal? 
  • Does it make it harder in some way?  
Think about why the information is being revealed now instead of later, and what that gains you from a storytelling perspective.

(Here's more on creating stronger goals and motivations)


Something is at stake in the scene, and if that information can raise those stakes, so much the better. Even if if just adds a new layer or risk or consequence, that's still a win. 

  • Is the protagonist risking anything by hearing/telling this information? 
  • Are the people in the scene at odds with each other over anything? 
  • Does the information raise the stakes at all? If it doesn't, can it? 
If the information being revealed doesn't change things at all, that's a good infodump or backstory red flag that you might not need it in the story.

(Here's more on creating conflict and raising the stakes)


Think about how this information is going to affect the protagonist's conflict. It should either help or hinder or it wouldn't be in the story, right? If it helps, then you might look for something to counterbalance that so there's tension again. Like they get the information they need, and then have to act on it and that will cause trouble. If it hurts, then how?
  • How does this information cause trouble for the protagonist? 
  • Does the information affect their personal relationships? 
  • Does it change what they thought they knew and cause inner conflict or turmoil? 
The conflict can be big or small, as long as it makes something a little tougher now by knowing this critical information.

(Here's more on adding conflict to your scenes)


Sometimes the information really is just stuff that has to be conveyed, like a sum up scene. If so, looks for ways you put the characters in a "dangerous" setting when they have this conversation.
  • Can they be in a place that has inherent conflict even if the characters themselves aren't in conflict? 
  • Could something might interrupt them so they don't hear the information they need? 
  • Could it be a bad time to have this conversation, but there's no other time to do it? 
If there's absolutely no tension in the information itself, then look for external factors to keep things tense.

(Here's more on using the setting to raise tension)


Even information shared between friends and allies can be tense if the opinions of those friends are at odds over what to do about this information. If everyone is on the same page, try looking for ways to have them disagree.
  • Does the other person want to hear/tell this information? 
  • If your protagonist is trying to get someone else to talk, is there a chance they won't be able to draw out that information? 
  • Maybe the protagonist has the information and they're trying hard not to talk? 
  • Are they afraid to talk? 
From a structure standpoint, look to see how much people are saying when they speak-short back and forth sentences or long heavy paragraph? Speeches often indicate infodumps through dialogue, and are prime suspects for sapping tension.

(Here's more on writing sizzling dialogue)


How a character reacts to what they're hearing/saying goes a long way to getting the reader to feel the same thing. Consider how their internalization can help the scene. 
  • Where is your protagonist at emotionally when they hear this information? 
  • Are they worried about the information? How? 
  • Can any of their fears come true in that scene? 
  • Can something worse than they feared occur? 
  • What do they expect to happen? 
  • How can you thwart those expectations?
A character who's tense will make the reader tense, even if there's no "action" going on in the scene. If they're worried about what they're about to find out, and they're thinking about how worried they are and what it all means, readers will feel it along with them. 

(Here's more on crafting natural-sounding internalization)

Static scenes don't have to be static at all if you look for ways to add excitement (even if that excitement is quiet terror or subtle longing). Layer in conflict and emotion and you'll wind up with a better scene. You'll constantly be building the tension so the characters--and the reader--never get a chance to relax.

Have you ever struggled with how to get in important information without it bogging down the scene? What tripped you up? What did you do that fixed it?

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Janice, you are my hero.

    I don't know how many times I've been sitting looking at my WIP, getting QWERTY-face from slamming my forehead on the keyboard and you come up with a post that solves my boggle.

    I just realized, I've never posted to say thank you. So here it is, thank you! You have a brilliant way of explaining things, I wouldn't miss your blog for the world.

  2. You always have the most amazing posts! I look forward to reading them because they are full of so much information, and right when I am getting discouraged you keep the inspiration there for me!

  3. Aw, thanks guys :) It does my heart good to hear that. I've had so many good folks help me over the years it's nice that I can give back.

  4. I agree with Jen and Wendy. I find your blog immensely helpful!

  5. It's funny how many times I have to remind myself to just get the info down the first time around instead of worrying about making it sing. Thanks for the great post.

  6. Thank you, Janice! Great jam-packed post. Love the way your mind just spills all this great advice in such an organized way! Love being reminded of all the things that make a great scene. I'm outlining three scenes as we "speak." I'll be referring back to this post many times. :)

  7. Yeah, this is a great post!

    It's easy to get a little lost in a story where certain things happen in your mind and don't make it to paper.

    I'm like you - I just write first. Then I go back in the edits, with a notebook, and start thinking of how to make the action better. I'll take notes on the story, the characters, potential ideas, etc.
    Then I'll go through the notes and decide what works best.


  8. This was EXACTLY the refresher Friday I needed! I have a scene that is imparting information to the MC (and reader) and I had worked out some of how to add conflict (it's terrifying changing her life forever, so there's that, and the internal struggle she goes through, and the many many questions she asks) but now I'm thinking about the setting at the same time, and how to make sure there is plenty of tension and conflict. I love how often I click in here and you are posting exactly what I needed to know at the time.

    1. Oh good! I have gremlins who keep me updated on writers' needs. They're quite good at spying (grin).

  9. This is perfect refresher timing for me. I'm revising a chapter where my hero is coming clean to his lady and it feels like a big info dump. Now I'm going to have to take these suggestions back and try to fix that scene!

    1. I hope this is just what you need to fix that scene. Good luck on the revision!