Monday, March 07, 2011

Quiet Time: Handling Non-Action Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We all know we’re supposed to keep our stakes escalating and our scene moving forward, but too much too fast can wear our readers out. How do you handle the quieter, in-between scenes where the world isn’t coming to an end and things have slowed down?

Whoa, There
Structurally speaking, the scenes between the scenes are called sequels. The time for the protagonist to reflect, absorb, decide, and react to what has just happened in a scene. Sometimes they’re a single line, sometimes they’re pages long. They help control pacing (and more on that tomorrow), but they also give you a chance to remind the reader why everything that’s going on is important.

Trouble is long sequels usually equal a bored reader, because nothing is happening.

The trick is to be able to give the reader a breather and still give them something to wonder about. It's all about tension. That need to know what comes next, regardless of what's happening -- or not happening.

Go Inside
One of my favorites is to focus on the internal conflicts for a bit. Your protagonist has just gone through something big and very likely had to make a choice somewhere. This choice hopefully connected to their internal conflict. Let them reflect on that and what it means to them. Not in a “sit around and mope about it” way, but in a story-advancing “I can’t believe I just did that what the heck do I do now?” way. Their goal might now be to make peace with whatever they just did that’s bothering them.

How might your protagonist react or try to deal with a recent choice or action? What might they do? Their actions will have consequences, not only external for plot reasons, but internally for their personal character growth. Seeing how the protagonist is going to deal with this can hook your reader and keep them reading even though there’s no traditional action.

(More on how to fix a stalled scene here)

Drop Breadcrumbs
These are also good times to lay a little groundwork and foreshadow what’s to come. A worried protagonist will think about the things that can go wrong, perhaps make plans to deal with some or realize they can’t deal with them all. While you want to be careful not to telegraph what’s going to happen (state it so clearly the reader knows this “worst fear” is really going to come true), you can toss out some clues that show stakes and keep the tension up, but not in a way that’s all about the action. Make the reader worried what’s going to happen as a result of all this. Worry keeps us reading.

Set the Mood
Tone and mood are other handy tricks for crafting quiet scenes, and can also work well with foreshadowing techniques. If things are about to get dark (or crazy, or scary) you can start preparing the reader for that with the calm before the storm. A mood shift signals things are changing or about to happen.

(More on moving from scene to scene here)

What a Revelation!
Revelations can help keep quiet scenes interesting. Secrets revealed, information discovered, truth found. Revelations can occur without a lot of action going on, so they’re very effective for in-between scenes. They also give the reader something they’ve been wanting to know, so it moves the story forward and often sets up the next step of the plot. Dangle the carrot of information, and readers will stick by to get the full story.

Keep Them Curious
The key ingredient to any scene is to keep the reader hooked, even during a slower scene. As long as there’s something going on that they’re curious about, they’ll stay with you. Engage them in some way, tease them, promise them things. It doesn’t have to be bullets flying or car chases, or life and death situations. It just has to be something they want to know more about.

(More on re-energizing dead scenes here)

Whispered words you desperately want to hear are just as exciting as a full-blown action scene. That’s really all tension is. Needing to know what comes next.


  1. Wow. Are you writing this blog just for me??? This will help me get through my writing goal for the day! Thanks!

  2. Janice, I can relate to Roberta on this particular issue. I've always battled (unsuccessfully) with this problem.

    That said, I wish I had the problem you sight at the start of this post about "wear out the readers" as opposed to the all too typical "Not getting the reader to care" roadblocks I face with every project, even if I've revised it more than three, count them, three times!

    At least if I'm "Wearing my readers out" it means they can't say I'm boring them to tears, you can get worn out from being idle, if you know what I mean.

    To be worn out, you have to either be working hard, like I do with the revision that feels like it's never enough, or you're so engaged in reading a certain book or movie, you MUST know where it goes and how it ends, no matter what.

    I don't mean to downplay how problematic this can be, but as someone who has the opposite problem so much more often, I'm a bit envious of people on the other side of the tracks on this issue.

    That said, pacing is big problem of mine all the same, I can't wait to hear you go more in depth with it tomorrow.

    Also, thanks again for all your great posts last week, I'm glad I could help spark a couple of them, hopefully my blog posts this week can do the same for someone else.


  3. Rats, I mean to say "You can't get worn out from being idle."

  4. I agree with Roberta. You must be in my head.

  5. Great tips. I try to do them, but don't always feel like I'm getting them right.


  6. Don't feel alone in that, I still feel that way after eight years down my path. But I promise you it won't last forever as long as you don't quit.

    Sometimes you need a break, no matter what some publishing hotshot says, because no human is invincible, but don't quit for good.

    I almost did last year and I would've regretted it for life. That doesn't mean frustration is easily broken or healed, but it WILL happen. Trust me on this above anything I've said in the comments up until now.

    I'm sure Janice will agree with me, not because she's published and I'm not yet, but because she and other writers I've been lucky to know are living that example, and just as important as having fun and loving what I write, the best way to repay that gratitude is not to quit, and get someone in publishing to acknowledge me, for my skills no one can say I didn't earn, especially me.

    I'm prepared to stay down this path however long it takes, break in, and stay in, and pray I'll know what my day job can be before long, something I made peace with long ago, but am still clueless as to what it is.

  7. Loved this post. I've found that when I just write action, action, action, there isn't enough time to understand the character's motivations. A lot of my favorite scenes in books are these "quieter" ones where, despite a lack of explosives, the stakes continue to be raised.

  8. Great post. I confess that I've had too many "Whoa there" moments in earliers drafts of my manuscript where the characters talk too or think too much about what they're doing rather than acting on it.

  9. Hi. Thanks for the article. Enjoyed reading it. Will retweet to our followers - surely they'll find it valuable.

    All the best


  10. I really like how blake snyder described scene structure in his book SAVE THE CAT. He basically says you've got two people who enter a room from opposite doors, they meet in the middle, and then they try to reach to other door.

  11. Excellent stuff. It can be all too easy to race on with the story when you get caught up in the flow. Gotta remember to give the poor reader time to catch up!

  12. Roberta: Yes I am! (grin) Glad it hit you at the right time :)

    Taurean: They say the grass is always greener on the other side, and I think problems are always easier on the other side. Everyone has issues and things they struggle with. Right now, yours is getting the pacing up. But next year you might be trying to slow it down because you pushed it too fast fixing it.

    Anne: I am, and it's really nice in there.:)

    Misha: Some days I don't either :) Writing it like that, which is what makes it both wonderful and frustrating. Even when you "know" something, there's still so much else that plays a part to making it work. But in a weird way, that takes some pf the pressure off. It's normal.

    Megan: Exactly. That's why super exciting action scenes on page one rarely work. No one to care about.

    Natalie: That happens to me, too. I've learned that when I do that, it means I still need to figure out how the scene is going to play out and those planning sessions are my way of thinking on paper. Then I cut the scene and just show the plan in action.

    Adam: Thanks so much!

    Story Weaver: I keep hearing things about that book but I've never read it. Sounds like an interesting take.

    Paul: Totally. I think it's extra hard when you want to get to a really cool scene later and are writing fast to get there.

  13. You're right, Janice.

    Sill, you can't overwhelm readers who are bored by your book or story, because you, the writer, doesn't grab them tight at the first infernal line and never stop until the end.

    It can be hard to focus on other parts of the story if you know from critiques and your own judgement your openings too weak or boring, even if you are starting in the right place, because no one will read the rest assuming the whole book's this bad, even if it's not.

    I'm actually in the midst of sharpening my query writing skills. Reading your archives and more recent posts are finally helping me get what you were trying to tell my last year but was not able to achieve, even when I understood perfectly in my head what you were getting at.

    I didn't update my blog yesterday like I wanted because I was praticiing my query writing with my new WIP and lost track of time.

    While my new WIP isn't finished yet, I know what I want the story to achieve and how it ends, and I've re-read your article, "What your Query Say about Your Book" countless times the past three months at various periods since first coming to your blog.

    What you say there is so true, and it's not that I didn't believe or understand why it's so, but it can be depressing, particularly if every writer who reads your actual book, never says anything to the effect of, "Your book reads as lame and broken as your query."

    Some parts may read lame and can be fixed, but NOT the whole book or story, which is what agents and editors assume will be the case because their time is limited and must eliminate many books and stories from the running because the writer can't maintain a constant level of quality and competency.

    I challenge anyone to convince me otherwise, or at the very least give me new insight, since being empowered plays a part in trusting yourself as a writer.

    I still hate writing query letters, but I've learned a newfound respect for them now, they can be good diagnostic tools for knowing what's most important, but unless you're naturally comfortable with pre-planning, with some books and stories, you have to dive in, no matter the outcome, or you'll never start.


  14. This is great advice! And a tough lesson to learn. My plots tend to be fast-paced, so I need to remember to let my characters breathe and reflect sometimes, and yeah, keep it interesting.

  15. Good!!!

    Probably we can develop some minor but good sub-plots for scenes such as these!!!


    with warm regards

  16. Taurean: Queries are tough, so hang in there.

    Lisa: Thanks! I typically have to go in and slow a few scenes down myself. And then have to speed up others. Always a mix ;)

    AllMyPosts: I bet you could. That would give you things to explore while the main plot was taking a break.

  17. I love how you phrased, "Dropping breadcrumbs." I'm actually a fan of those quieter moments -- it's often those subtle scenes that endear the characters to their readers the most.

    Great post!

  18. Thanks! quiet stuff is where the characterization usually is, and that's who we care about :) As much emphasis as folks put on the action, if you don;t care, it doesn't matter.

  19. This is so helpful! Thank you!

  20. You know it is wonderful to have a question, search on this site and find exactly what I needed. Thank you!

    1. Most welcome! Glad you found what you needed.