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?
(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?
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?
(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?
(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?
(Here's more on writing sizzling dialog)
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?
(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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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