Books often have similar scenes making up the plot. If it's a pulse-racing thriller, you'll have lots of action or chase scenes. Romance will have lots of relationship scenes. Mysteries show lots of sleuths looking for clues. After a while, these similar scenes can start to feel repetitive and even predictable.
If you have a lot of chase scenes where the protagonist is never caught, readers might just assume she won't be and stop worrying. Lovers who almost kiss over and over? They won't be the only ones frustrated. But these core scenes are central to these novels, and are even expected by their readers.
It's the old, "give me the same thing but make it fresh" dilemma.
Here are six ways to make similar scenes feel different:
1. Change the focus
Sure, she's the protagonist, but if everything always happens to her and is about her, then you miss out on opportunities to enjoy other characters or aspects of the novel. Have a lot of chase scenes with her on the run? Then why not make the protagonist the pursuer in one? Or let her hide instead of run?
Try looking at your similar scenes and determining what the main focus is for every one. How might you shift that focus to achieve the same story goal, but make the scene feel different? Can any of the scenes end with the current goal being the result of something else happening? Can a larger issue drag the characters away from what they were focused on? Can a smaller annoyance become the main problem and the main problem shift to a smaller annoyance?
2. Change the goal
Sometimes the core conflict of the novel steals the goal of the scene. Yes, the core conflict should tie into everything, but if every scene is about "let's save the girl!" then the novel can feel stagnant. They're always trying to save the girl.
For a few scenes, why not let them do something else? Maybe they need to do something that shows why saving the girl matters, or is the result of a previous plan gone wrong. Maybe the goal is indirectly tied to saving the girl, but connects more to a subplot. If the goals are always about "getting something" then maybe one deals with losing it, or keeping it.
(More on keeping goals and motivations fresh here)
3. Change the stakes
If every stake is death or capture, the tension levels fall right to the floor. Try looking for specific issues that can have consequences, smaller stakes that still carry dire consequences. Think of them as lynchpins--they might seem small at first glance, but pull one and the entire plan comes crashing down.
Look for ways to narrow the stakes to an immediate problem or action. If "losing the guy" is the risk, maybe have the stakes be something that would lead to losing that guy. On its own it's not a horrible consequence, but under the right conditions--catastrophic.
(More on raising the stakes by narrowing the focus here)
4. Change the location
Have too many scenes around a table? In a car? In someone's room? Kick them out! A setting change can add all kinds of different (and unexpected) layers to a scene by working thematically with it, or contrasting it. It can add extra dangers, extra problems, and just be different and unexpected.
Need two lovers to have yet another near miss kiss? Maybe they wind up at a frat party and get pulled into a raunchy game of spin the bottle. An even more unexpected location if neither character is actually in college. Think outside the box and look at places that--at first glance--look like the worst places for that type of scene to happen.
5. Change the emotion
Horror might be able the fear, but if you characters are always scared, there nothing to contrast it against. Are they just a scaredy cat or is this fear really something special? Are your lovers constantly pining away for each other? Give them a day or two to be happy.
Take a look at the scenes you feel are the most redundant. What would happen if you used the opposite emotion instead? If the protagonist is happy, make her miserable. Terrified? Make her amused or angry. What unexpected emotions might you play with and how might that change the scene?
(More on how emotion affects a scene here)
6. Change the mood
Don't forget the other characters or the mood around the protagonist. A sober funeral could be the funniest place in town under the right circumstances. A lovely moonlit night could feel like the end of the world. A change in emotion could work on a larger scale as well as for an individual character.
Think about how movies use mood. Someone breaking into a house in a thriller feels dark and foreboding, but a cat burglar sneaking in to steal a priceless jewel can be sexy and playful. A heist is almost always fun if the thieves are the good guys, yet sinister if they're the bad guys.
Some plots need to have similar things happen in multiple scenes, but the scenes don't all have to feel the same. Mix it up and you can make even the same scene done three times feel like every one offers something new.
Do you have scenes that feel too similar? Have similar scenes ever pulled you out of a story?
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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