Friday, September 30, 2011
Ready, Set...Where's the Action? Keeping Informative Scenes Tense
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 info, 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 protag 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 protag's goal in this scene? They're either the one telling the info 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." The best spot is when it can cause the most trouble. Is there a way you can make the info 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 protag needs them to do? Is there anything about the scene that can cause the protag to fail at their goal if they reveal that info now? If they're the one's hearing the info, does that info 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.
Something is at stake in the scene. Are they risking anything by hearing/telling this information? Are the people in the scene at odds with each other over anything? Does the info 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.
How is this info going to affect the protag? It has to do something to either hinder or help or it wouldn't be in the story, right? If it helps, then you might look for something to counter balance that so there's tension again. Like they get the info they need, and then have to act on it and that'll be trouble. If it hurts, then how? What else does this info mess up for the protag? Does the info cause trouble in 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.
Sometimes the info really is just stuff that has to be conveyed, like a sum up scene. If so, can you put the characters somewhere dangerous when they have this conversation? Can they be in a place that has inherent conflict even if the characters themselves aren't in conflict? Something that might interrupt them so they don't hear the info they need. Or 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.
Does the other person want to hear/tell this info? Even info shared between friends and allies can be tense if the opinions of those friends are at odds over what to do about this info. If everyone is on the same page, try looking for ways to have them disagree. If your protag is trying to get someone else to talk, is there a chance they won't be able to draw out that information? Maybe it's them with the info and they're trying hard not to talk? Are they afraid to talk? From a structure standpoint, if people are talking, are they speaking in big chunks (like a drawn out speech) or drawing it out? Speeches often indicate infodumps through dialog, and are prime suspects for sapping tension.
How a character reacts to what they're hearing/saying goes a long way to getting the reader to feel the same thing. Where is your protag at emotionally when they hear this information? Are they worried about the info? 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?
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 for it. 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?