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 and end and things have slowed down?
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.
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)
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.