Today, I worked on a difficult scene. It wasn’t a big action-packed scene; those are easy. Instead, it was a transition scene that moved the story along a week and had the potential to lose the reader with it’s lack of tension.
Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, repeats this signature mantra, “Tension on every page.”
He points out three types of scenes that can be a trap for the lazy writer: Tea time or any time people eat together; transporting characters from one spot to another; and dialogue. Maass recommends that you cut these scenes:
The most controversial part of my Writing the Blockbuster Novel workshop pis this exercise, in which I direct authors to cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages. Participants look dismayed when they hear this directive, and in writer’s chat rooms on the Web it is debated in tones of alarm. No one wants to cut such material.
Unless you give these scenes careful attention, they can wind up as BORING!
Strategies for Dealing with Low Tension Scenes
In working through my scene, I focused on a couple strategies for approaching such Bore-Traps.
The moment before. What happened right before this scene? Characters don’t go into a scene neutral. Sometimes, just thinking about the moment before will help you get a handle on what tensions or conflicts could be built into the scene. For example, if Jillian and Dad step out of the car at a used-car dealership and talk to a salesman about the 2012 Toyota Camry, it could be boring: How much is it? Do you finance? Want to take a test drive?
If, however, you take a moment to explore the moment before, you might find some interesting points of tension:
Our salesman, William, has just learned that his brother was in a motorcycle wreck and while he lived, William is now obsessing about car safety. Jillian has been trying to convince her Dad to get her a new car and is angry that he’s stopping at the used car shop, while Dad is worried because Mom just told him she’s filing for divorce and Dad doesn’t know how he can afford to buy Jillian any kind of car, what with the upcoming lawyer bills. Try writing that scene again, after all of THAT!
Character’s attitudes going into a scene. Similar, but slightly different is an emphasis on character attitudes going into a discussion. For William, we could choose from several attitudes: obsessing over safety, anxious to get done and get to the hospital so he speeds through everything, angry with brother because William just convince his wife to get a motorcycle and his blockhead brother just messed up that deal. Jillian could be pleading, sarcastic, grateful, or even indifferent. Dad could be generous, angry, stingy, resentful and more. Decide on the character’s attitudes, making sure that they are coming into the discussion at tangents.
Small moments of tension. This may seem obvious, but what I mean by this is to look for things or situations within the scene that could go wrong. For example, in my current story, the kids are in a cafeteria, and when the boy opens his coke, the carbonation explodes all over. It’s a small thing, a common thing. But it’s conflict. What is present in your situation/scene that could spill over with some small conflict?
Foreshadow something that is coming – look forward. Another reason the coke explosion worked for me is that the story involves volcanoes! It’s a minor foreshadowing of what’s coming. Look ahead in your story to see if you can provide even a minor foreshadowing.
Refer back to something – look backward. Don’t just look forward. Also look back to previous chapters and try to echo something. Can you echo it with some kind of progression? Make it faster, higher, bigger, etc? And plan another time to use that element and make it the fastest, biggest, highest, etc.?
My scene, which started as a bore, is much tighter and has more tension. It’s a collection of small moments of tension that adds up to an important transition scene that keeps the reader turning the pages.