Wednesday, April 24, 2019

6 Tips on Making Similar Scenes Feel Different

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Novels often use similar scenes to tell a story, but writers don't have to make them all read the same. Here's a look back on ways to keep scenes from feeling repetitive. 

Novels—especially genre novels—often have similar scenes making up the plot, because the protagonist has a series of tasks to complete in pursuit of the goal. In a pulse-racing thriller, the protagonist will find himself involved in action sequences or chase scenes. Romance heroes and heroines will navigate their way through a lot of relationship scenes. Sleuths in mysteries will spend a large chunk of the story searching for clues and speaking with suspects. After a while, these similar scenes can feel repetitive and even predictable.

For example, if there are a lot of chase scenes where the protagonist (or antagonist) is never caught, readers might just assume she won't be and stop worrying about it. Lovers who almost kiss over and over? They won't be the only ones frustrated by the repeated near-misses. 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 of the scene

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 scenes with a protagonist on the run? Why not make the protagonist the pursuer in one of them? Or let her hide instead of run? You might even try inventive ways to show a chase, such as through an unusual setting or in a unique way.

Try looking at your similar scenes and determining what the main focus is for each 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?

(Here's more on The Question You Need to Ask for Every Scene)

2. Change the goal for the scene

Having goals is vital to a novel, but you do need to mix it up a bit. Not every goal in every scene should be the same. If every scene is about "let's save the girl!" in some fashion, the novel can feel stagnant. They're always trying to save the girl (or whatever the issue is for your story).

For a few scenes, why not pursue a different goal? Maybe the protagonist needs 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 previous goals have been about "getting something" then maybe throw in a few that deal with losing it, or keeping it.

You might also look for smaller problem that prevent the protagonist from pursuing that recurring goal. In order to move forward, another issue must be dealt with first.

(Here's more on Keeping Goals and Motivations Fresh)

3. Change the stakes of the scene

Stakes that never escalate can be a serious tension drainer for a story, especially if every stake is death or capture. 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.

Also look for ways to narrow the stakes of an immediate problem or action. If "losing the guy" is the risk, maybe have the stakes attached to an act that would lead to losing that guy. On its own it's not a horrible consequence, but under the right conditions—catastrophic.

(Here's more on Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

4. Change the location of the scene

Have too many scenes around a table? In a car? In someone's room? Kick them out! A setting change can add all different (and unexpected) layers to a scene by working thematically with it, or contrasting it.

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. This could be 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.

(Here's more on Creating Story Tension: Rooms with an Unexpected View)

5. Change the emotion in the scene

Horror might be about the fear, but if your characters are always scared, the fear becomes the norm and readers won't feel that fear. It's the ups and down and shifting emotions that create tension and contrast in a scene. 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?

(Here's more Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers)

6. Change the mood of the scene

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, and a lovely moonlit night could feel like the end of the world if things are amiss. 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.

(Here's more on How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes)

Many stories need similar actions, and thus similar scenes, but the scenes don't all have to feel the same. Mix it up and even the same scene written three ways can offer something new each time.

Do you have scenes that feel too similar? Have similar scenes ever pulled you out of a story? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.

Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This happens a lot with any kind of series series. Different book, same scenario. These are great tips to remember when writing. I'll definitely Pin and Share.

    1. Thanks! So true about a series. That's a whole other level of similarity. Finding the balance there can be even more challenging.

  2. This is so excellent, and definitely something I've run into. Another solution is to combine scenes that are similar, and omit plot points that don't belong.

    1. Absolutely. Combining scenes is a great way to tighten the plot. You can also do the same thing with minor characters to make them more layered.

  3. I did experience this with The Boy Who Loved Fire because there's more than one fire scene. This is great advice.

    1. Great example. Anything that uses a special trait or detail like that has to have multiple uses of them. I ran into that in The Shifter with the pain shifting. Took some thought to find new ways to make that work at times.

  4. Hi Janice
    Great post, loads to think about, thanks.
    As a writer of fantasy and scifi, there are plenty of those repetitive fight scenes, space battles, etc you mention.
    With my current WIP, I have five POVs, one being the star, who happens to be really good at fighting. There are, of course, some fight scenes from his POV, but I've also featured another told from one of his companions, a somewhat less confident fighter. It added some comedy, and enabled the reader to perhaps get a better idea of the main protag's skills.
    I think changing the goal is a great one to work on. Using layers, and building slowly, rather than making it all or nothing, every time.
    Great stuff, cheers

    1. A contrasting POV like that can work well, since they know things about the skills another characters might not, and they can think about those skills in a logical way that fits the story. Especially if they wish they had those skills. Sounds like fun!

  5. You will also find great examples to study, both good and bad, if you look at your favorite TV shows, which need recognizable scenes as their hallmark.
    The worst repetition is using stock footage, like fighters scrambling in Battlestar Galactica or UFO. Contrast this to Firefly: Wash's extrodinary piloting skills are shown in several scenes in different episodes, but each is unique.
    Sitcoms have the same people sitting around the same table many, many times. I love how each lunch-in-the-university-casino scene in The Big Bang Theory is different, sometimes drastically so.
    Police Procedurals have briefings, interrogations, stake-outs, file research, pathology, evidence gathering and analysis, chases, and maybe fighting, in almost every episode.For me, the NCIS scenes where Gibbs ends some wacky conversation with "a dead marine" never get stale.
    However, Police Procedurals are also a great example of the danger to get inconsistent by scene variation: It makes me scream when a team tries to apprehend a dangerous killer with sidearms and unarmoured, because ... ??? Last time they used full protective gear and had rifles, tear gas, etc. ready. Yes, it is definitely far more interesting, but pleaaaaase give me a good reason.
    Clarice Starling knocks at the door of reckless serial killer Buffalo Bill alone, unarmoured and with only her standard sidearm because she expects to find an old lady in the house who will answer her questions.

    1. Great examples. TV is so useful to study things like this because you can see the techniques in condensed form. The same storytelling is used, but without the time needed to read multiple novels.

      The procedurals are also good *bad* examples. How many times have we watched a show and we know exactly at what time the real killer will appear? Or who must be the bad guy because they appeared in X scene at X time and it always turns back to someone met in the first act? Great lessons learned from both well-done shows and the ones that feel repetitious.

    2. Yes, all those bad examples can teach us a lot.

      Another advantage of watching TV shows is since it costs little time and mental energy to "sit through" an episode, I can wait for and enjoy the great stuff even in shows that have some annoying parts. Many shows have both "good" and "bad" sides.

      This makes it easy to have fun with stories that I would not normally "buy". When my daughters made me watch "How I Met Your Mother" I didn't find it as witty and hilarious as it is supposed to be, but its use of nonlinear storytelling and editing techniques is "legendary". And it's also a great example of retelling the same scene from different viewpoints or with different knowledge.

    3. Exactly. The use of callbacks and how things connect in that show are particularly well done. The smallest throwaway detail can come back as a major plot point in the future.

  6. Great post! I'm working on a story right now where I have several scenes that take place in the same location and really similar circumstances. My MC keeps watch with a certain night guard. It has to happen several times to show their changing relationship (I picture it as a movie montage, actually). The trick is to make their internal changes (from mistrust to friendship) interesting enough that the audience doesn't get bored with the static scenery.

  7. LOVE THIS! You're the best.

  8. Hi,j just saw your article here and I'm actually making a story or comic and I saw several scenes in another manga with very similar scene idea such as a girl with two personalities smiling maliciously in an operating table ,I liked how the portrayal of the experiment was depicted and there was another Scene where she also does the same thing(smiling maliciously ) but from a. Different angle ,I've seen other various scenes from that manga (the girl hovering in the air)walking foward bloody in general is it even okay to try to emulate the same sort of scene using my own characters??

    1. As long as you're putting your own fresh spin on it and not copying outright, sure. Being inspired by how someone else does something and finding a way to make that concept work in your own work is done all the time.