Wednesday, March 04, 2020

3 Reasons That "Perfectly Good Scene" Is Boring Your Readers

3 Reasons That Perfectly Good Scene Is Boring Your Readers, how to write strong scenes, fixing weak scenes
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A weak scene doesn’t mean the end of your novel.

It’s a lot easier to spot a weak scene than a boring one. Weak scenes have problems that usually stand out, either to us, or to our critiquers or beta readers. But boring scenes? They like to hunker down and stay just enough under the radar to avoid revision, because they seem like a perfectly good scene. They work, but just not as well as they should.

How to Tell if Your Scene Is Boring Your Readers

This is tricky since we can’t loom over our readers and peek into their heads to know how they feel while they’re reading (wouldn’t that be helpful?). But we can ask our critique partners and beta readers to let us know when they start to skim a scene, or when a scene isn’t grabbing their attention.

If you don’t have anyone else reading your manuscript, then pay attention to when you start to bore yourself. You might not even realize that’s happening, so pay attention to any scene you skip or skim because “it’s fine as is.”

I don’t know about you, but I rarely get tired of re-reading the strong scenes while revising. It’s the ones that are good, but not great, that usually get overlooked, because there’s technically nothing wrong with them. I just don’t feel a compelling need to read them again—and that’s a red flag there might be a “this scene is a little boring” problem.

Pay attention to scenes you want to read again, versus ones you want to skip.

When you find those potentially weak scenes, here are three common reasons readers might be losing interest in the story:

1. They Don’t Care About the Outcome of the Scene

When readers don’t care what happens next, they don’t feel all that compelled to keep reading. They’ll skim, they’ll miss clues that affect the story later, and they might even skip to the next chapter or scene.

When readers don’t care, it’s most often due to not having anything to care about. They know (or think they know) the scene is going to work out exactly as they expect, and nothing bad is going to happen to the characters. The scene is just a necessary step to getting the answer to the story question, but if the scene wasn’t there, they’d still get their answer in the end.

Here are few ways to make readers care about the story:

Add or increase the stakes to make readers worry what will happen next.

It’s possible the reason the scene is boring is due to a lack of stakes. If there’s no price for failure, then it doesn’t matter if the protagonist succeeds or not. Look for ways to add risk and consequences if the protagonist doesn’t succeed in their goal.

Increase the conflict so the task is more difficult, and thus, more unpredictable.

Another reason readers stopped caring, is a lack of conflict in the scene. If there’s nothing preventing the protagonist from their goal, there’s no fear they won’t get it. But be wary of adding mere obstacles that don’t actually affect the outcome. If the conflict is just a delay tactic and won’t affect the outcome of the scene, they’re just as boring as having no conflict at all.

Make sure the scene matters to the larger plot, character arc, or story (or all three).

Sometimes we add a scene because we need to show backstory or part of the protagonist’s plan or process to get the goal, but it doesn’t change anything in the story itself. If you took the scene out and it doesn’t affect the outcome of the story, that’s a red flag the scene probably doesn’t matter to the book. Either fix it, or cut it.

(Here’s more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

2. There’s No Fear Anything Will Go Wrong (or Change) in the Scene

Although this seems like it should be a stakes issue, it’s more of a tension issue. You can state very clearly that failure means “certain death” or something equally terrible, but without tension and a sense of anticipation, those stakes won’t make readers worry.

When readers don’t worry, it’s usually because they don’t expect anything to go wrong in the scene, or don’t think the scene will unfold unexpectedly. They’re confident it will go exactly as they assume it will—and in boring scenes—they’re right.

Here are few ways to increase the tension and unpredictability in a scene:

Do the last thing readers would expect.

If nothing changes in the story, even the most exciting scene can feel meh. We expect plots to unfold in a certain way, because we’ve read and watched countless stories in our lifetimes. The more voracious a reader, the harder it is to surprise them. Ask your beta readers how they expect a scene to go and if they’re right, considers different outcomes that still work for your plot and story.

If you don’t have beta readers, brainstorm other outcomes for the scene. Go back to the start and consider what would happen if the protagonist made different choices, or took a different path or course of action.

Don’t give readers all the answers.

Wanting to figure out the story is a strong reason readers read, and the more intellectual your puzzle, the stronger this need will be. Boring scenes don’t leave anything for readers to wonder about. Every character says what they mean and there are no secrets or ambiguous clues to be found. Leave clues and hints that there are “things unknown” that might cause trouble, or create uncertainty. Don’t give away the secrets until readers are dying to know them.

Have something actually go wrong.

Don’t cry wolf. If nothing ever goes wrong, then no matter how well you write a scene, or how high the stakes and tension are, readers will get bored by them. Have you ever seen a movie with endless car chases or action scenes? After a while, you start glancing at your watch. Same thing happens in a novel. Readers know you don’t truly mean it, and they’ve learned that things will always turn out okay in the end.

(Here’s more on Three Ways to Add Tension to a Scene During Revisions)

3. The Scene’s Not Going Anywhere

A lack of narrative drive is a big reason readers get bored with a scene. There’s no sense of a goal, no forward plot momentum, readers can’t quite figure out the point of the scene or why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Sure, things might be happening, but the story is effective running in place.

Here are a few ways to strengthen the narrative drive in a scene:

Make sure the point-of-view character’s goal is clear (and that they have one).

If the protagonist has no goal, you have no scene. If that goal isn’t clear to readers early on, they’ll wonder why they need to keep reading. Make sure your goal is clear, either by having a character state it outright, or by leaving enough subtext to make it obvious. For example, if the goal is to escape a burning building, you don’t always have to say “We need to get out of this building.” Showing your characters looking for ways to get out can be enough.

Give the characters something external to do.

This is a big problem with boring scenes, and often it’s not a scene but a sequel. The point-of-view character is too much in their head and there’s no external action going on. While thinking is necessary and reveals motivations, emotions, and even goals, if they’re not physically doing something as well, the scene can feel aimless or static.

Makes sure the scene actually is going somewhere.

Sometimes a scene isn’t going anywhere, because we’re infodumping, or explaining, or just caught up in world building. It’s not a bad scene—which is why it’s still in the draft—but it’s not doing anything to drive the plot or story.

These scenes are good candidates to combine with another. Odds are, there’s important information here, but it’s in the wrong spot. Try adding it to a scene that feels weak in other ways, and see if you can fix both in one shot.

(Here’s more on The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier)

A weak or boring scene isn’t a novel-ending problem, so don’t fret too much if (or when, let’s be honest) it happens to you. Early drafts are all about figuring out the plot and getting the story down, so it’s only natural that some of those scenes will need more work on the next draft. Look at your core scene components—the goal, the motivation, the conflicts, and and the stakes—and you’ll figure out what needs to happen to turn that boring scene into one that grabs readers.

What do you do when you’re worried your scene is boring?

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. 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 Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure 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 gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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 comment:

  1. Oh dear, I think I've written more than a few of those boring scenes. Especially in my first releases. Now I write more succinctly cutting out the fluf and keeping the story moving forward. Action, action, action. But I do wonder if I've left too much out. Great advice!