When we read a novel, we’re imagining what’s happening like it’s a movie playing in our minds. One thing that doesn’t happen much in great movies is mirror-gazing and introspection. That’s because watching someone look into a mirror and think for a long time is less exciting than watching a video buffer on dial-up. It’s much more interesting when an event reveals what the character thinks about himself (or herself) or about what’s happening.
Directors “block” a movie’s scene before they shoot it so that actors know where to move. They know that if the characters all stand in the same spot, the scene gets boring and doesn’t have any strong emotions in it. Take, for example, this scene from the Avengers where Tony Stark threatens Loki:
They could have just stood there and talked. Instead, the scene shows the Iron Man suit failing, Tony calmly offering Loki a drink and getting one for himself, and putting on the bracelet while Loki paces. Then Loki tries to kill him with the scepter, fails, and throws Stark out the window, whose Iron Man suit arrives to save him just in time. This visual-packed scene became one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Revealing things about your character by thinking is only a little better than having your character introduce themselves like, “Hi, I’m Mark. I have short dark hair and green eyes. My mom died a while ago, and I miss her. She was stubborn, but brave, and I hope I’m like her.” It’s a list of facts, and your reader isn’t feeling those emotions with the character. Boring scenes are often because of listing too many facts without movement.
If a particular scene is boring your readers, look for memories, pondering, emotional self-analyzing, or talking about backstory. Here are two ways to breathe some life into those boring scenes by adding movement:
1. Put the scene into context.
If Mark looks into a mirror and remembers his mom, the thought doesn’t have much context. Mark probably looks into his mirror every day without noticing that his eyes are the same color as his mom’s. Why would he think about it on this particular day? It’s probably not a more emotional event than it was yesterday.
Mirrors are not usually objects that carry a lot of emotion. If Mark visits his old house as a way of dealing with his grief, we get it. We can think about the flood of memories and emotions that come back when you see a place you grew up in that has changed a lot. We can experience those emotions with Mark because it’s connected to a context that we understand.
If you have your character thinking or talking about something important to your story without showing the event, you’re probably taking a shortcut. You’re not telling the story of the event that has happened or is happening. Taking the scene to the event as it’s happening will show more detail and more about the characters’ reactions and emotions. If the scene is in the past, create an event that shows the effects of the event.
Characters with strong emotions will always react strongly, and strong emotions always come from big events. The more your readers can see the emotions and what causes them, the more they’ll share in those emotions.
2. Create an event that symbolizes abstract concepts.
Suppose your main characters, husband and wife, are having an argument. She thinks he’s not paying enough attention to her, and he thinks she’s being needy. You could have this argument all as dialogue, of course, and that could be pretty emotional. But what if the wife starts the argument while he’s watching TV? What if she turns it off, and he turns it back on again? What if the TV gets broken in the middle of their heated emotions? The scene is escalating emotionally because the TV becomes a symbol of what they’re arguing over: whether he’s paying enough attention to her or not.
A girl who’s really shy might stay away from her group and hide behind a book. A hero who’s afraid because he’s about to go into battle might make sure his sword is sharp and write to his parents. A man who’s angry could release it all in a rage against a person or an object or hide his anger while he absent-mindedly sketches ways to get revenge.
Thinking “I’m so angry I could kill him,” has only a fraction of the impact of venting that anger onto a picture of the person who has made him angry. Take the conflict from the character’s mind into the outward events of the scene.
Scenes that are full of visible movement catch a reader’s imagination. They can mentally fill in details of what the scene looked like and feel what it would be like to be there. Keep in mind when you write what you are showing your readers’ imagination.
Is this a kind of “Show, don’t tell”? Yes, it is. But who knows what to do when a critique partner says “Show more”? Now you do.
So how do you add life to your boring scenes?