How to make your most ordinary scene interesting

Having a cup of tea on the way somewhere

Some scenes crackle off the page as we write them. Others fill logical gaps or give us information, but they can be the dullest scenes to write. How can we liven them up?

I’m a big fan of giving scenes in novels a purpose, but in some manuscripts I come across scenes that are all purpose and no soul. I can see the writer thinking – ho-hum, here’s where I introduce the main character’s parents over tea, here’s where they’ve got to be in the car going somewhere, here’s where he explains a set-up that we need or nothing else will make sense. The writer’s weariness slumps off the page.

But elsewhere in the novel, the tension is beautifully done, the characters spring into three dimensions as living, feeling people, with things to hide, issues that are at odds with some of the other people.

Wow, what just happened? It’s as if the book has come alive.

No. The writer has come alive.

The reader knows you were bored

When I point out that some of their scenes were flat, the writer usually says they had a hard time writing them. But, they say, I have to get those bits in, don’t I?

Going from A to B in a car, the Iron Man way

They’re right in a way. For a story to make sense you do have to convey a certain amount of information, background, and there are logical gaps you have to bridge.

But you don’t need any scene that you’re bored by. Because the reader can tell your heart wasn’t in it.

What I do

When I get to a scene that makes me feel this way, I rethink. How can I get my obligatory information across in a way that entertains me? I play a few improv games to make the dialogue snap, I mess around with the location or other things the characters can do until I hit on something that makes it all wake up. (You’ll find some of them in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence).

Or make them say the opposite

Another thing you can do if you have an obligatory conversation is make the characters say the opposite of what they needed to say.

In Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, there’s a scene where the hero, Richard Hannay, is in a hotel room with the woman he’s handcuffed to. They’re lying on the bed and she’s obviously going to ask him if he’s really a murderer. And he’s got to explain. I was keen to see how the writers would tackle this because –

1 – we’re going to get a lot of explanation

2 – it’s all stuff we’ve already seen, yet he obviously has to tell her.

How in holy were they going to keep us interested?

Here, roughly remembered and greatly truncated because I didn’t think to write it down at the time, is how that bit of the dialogue went:

She: I’ve been told murderers have terrible dreams.
He: Only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first took to crime,
I was quite squeamish about it….
She: How did you start?
He: Quite a small way, like most of us. Pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school… a little pocket picking, a spot of car pinching… Killed my first man … In years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussaud’s and point me out.
She: Which section?
He: It’s early to say. I’m still young … You’ll point me out and say, “if I were to tell you how matey I once was with that gentleman, you’d be… ”
And so on. He didn’t explain how innocent he was. He went ludicrously over the top and claimed he was on his way to being the grand-moff master-criminal. Far from being a plodding piece of exposition, it’s a wonderful character piece that makes the characters trust each other a little more.

In a good story we’re interested in every scene. So every time you find yourself wearily thinking ‘I’ve got to get this bit in’ or ‘they have to go here or say this’ wait, think and brainstorm. Turn off the autopilot and find a way to write it that excites you.

Do you have any tips for obligatory scenes? Or examples of scenes where writers have found a great way to liven them up? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Alexander M Zoltai on April 24, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    As always, excellent post, though, I wonder what advice you’d give for the times a scene needs to be boring, needs to set the reader into a space that’s dull, needs to serve some purpose that’s much less than scintillating?

    Also wonder if you’ve ever had a scene like that? 🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 3:08 pm

      In that case, my dear, go to sleep on the keyboard and type zzzzzzzzzz with your nose.

      Seriously, there are times when a scene needs to be quieter than the scenes around it, to let the more frenetic ones breathe. But dull? Never.

  2. #3 by Chazz on April 24, 2011 - 3:04 pm

    Great post! When I see a scene that’s flat, I look for the action and I look for the jokes. If I can sift the expositions amongst all that, it usually perks up.

    Sometimes the answer is to find a thread I can pull that tells the story in parallel. For instance, I just finished a scene where I make clear how the protagonist feels about a character. But he doesn’t talk about the character. Instead he recalls finding a wounded animal in the street on the way to school.

    If not action, humour and metaphor don’t get it ticking, I walk away and steel myself for another rewrite until I find the right gas for that engine.

    • #4 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 3:26 pm

      Chazz, metaphors and parallel threads are a nice way to do it – more emotional too.

  3. #5 by Carol Riggs on April 24, 2011 - 3:06 pm

    Excellent post! I love the idea of playing around with things more unexpected to spice up the writing as well as the reading. Thanks for the read, and Happy Easter to ya!

    • #6 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 3:09 pm

      Thanks, Carol! If the writer is interested, the reader is too (although we mustn’t veer into self-indulgence…). Happy international chocolate day!

    • #7 by Alexander M Zoltai on April 24, 2011 - 3:23 pm

      I knew you’d say that.

      Still, I had to ask just to see how exactly you’d say it 🙂

      • #8 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 3:27 pm

        🙂 Happy Easter, Alexander.

  4. #9 by Hugh on April 24, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    Great post Roz (and as always, great picture selection. I think you must apply the same general principles you recommend for difficult scene writing to your choice of stills…) And yes, I’ve always rated that scene from The 39 Steps. It seems to me it’s the template for so many others, from Charade to Butch Cassidy to Withnail.
    BTW, one other throw-in for the pot when writing the scene bores you: change the POV.

    • #10 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 5:03 pm

      Hi Hugh! I love choosing pictures for my posts – glad you like them!
      Changing the POV… hmmm, only if that’s not going to jar. In Life Form 3 I had a scene where a character had to explain a lot of stuff we already knew so I put in a chapter break, then brought us back to the scene with the focus on what the listening characters were doing and how they were reacting. A change of camera, if you like.

  5. #11 by Hugh on April 24, 2011 - 4:13 pm

    P.S. I can’t remember if that suggestion is NYourN. If it is, apologies.

    • #12 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 5:04 pm

      I just flipped through and I don’t think it is. But I do advocate lots of other messing about….

  6. #13 by Irene Vernardis on April 24, 2011 - 6:20 pm

    Great post 🙂
    I think that when an author finds him/herself thinking “I have to get those bits in, don’t I?”, then he/she probably shouldn’t do it, really.

    If you must “force” something into a story, then most probably it doesn’t belong in the story and needs to be cut. When the author “forces” something into a story, he/she “forces” it down the readers’ throat. Not good :).
    Stories must flow. When there is an obstacle, then the author must find a way around it, if it can’t be removed by a solution. Water always finds a way to continue, no matter the obstacle. So should the story.

    Thank you for the very interesting post 🙂

    • #14 by rozmorris on April 24, 2011 - 6:42 pm

      Thanks, Irene!

      You’re dead right that nothing should be forced. I frequently find myself saying the most important thing an author can do is to develop a gut feeling for what belongs. As you say, if something has to go in, the writer has to find the natural way.

  7. #15 by Michelle Gregory on April 24, 2011 - 6:53 pm

    this is great stuff. i’m bookmarking this for future reference.

  8. #17 by last_lines on April 24, 2011 - 11:46 pm

    Great post as always Roz! I like the cinematic reference as a tool for rewriting scenes.

    • #18 by rozmorris on April 25, 2011 - 8:29 am

      Thanks, Kim! I love examples from the movies as they approach storytelling in a dynamic way.
      Great new avatar pic, BTW.

  9. #19 by Jeffrey Russell on April 25, 2011 - 10:31 pm

    I’ve come to think in terms of leading my reader through a rich, old, pine forest. One where the path through it seems clear sometimes and less so other times. Obstacles get in the way. Boulders, ravines, fallen down trees and the like. I try to make sure the reader knows that even though pine trees may look pretty much the same, they’re not! So be careful. But I don’t suddenly show them a weeping willow tree.

    Those ‘boring’ scenes you mentioned, they’re the weeping willows. Nothing wrong with a willow, mind you. They can be quite lovely. They just don’t belong in my story.

    The tricky part, of course, is making sure I don’t convince myself the willow is really a pine after all!

    • #20 by rozmorris on April 25, 2011 - 11:15 pm

      Nice way to describe it, Jeffrey – thanks! You clearly know what I’m getting at.

  10. #21 by Sally on April 26, 2011 - 11:39 am

    Roz, I think you’re right that the reader can tell when the writer is not interested in their own scene. I have wrestled with this kind of scene enough times myself, as we all have. What I tend to do is to keep those mundane scenes as short as possible, because in the first place the reason they’re mundane is that there’s not a lot happening, and you’re only trying to add maybe one or two pieces of information to move your story along. It’s often the reflective scenes that suffer from this problem. Shortening helps (for me at least) because then they read as sharp, to the point, and the reader can get back to the all important action scenes a lot sooner.

    • #22 by rozmorris on April 26, 2011 - 10:30 pm

      Hi Sally – yes, that’s a good instinct. But I’m thinking more and more that we can take these scenes further and see if we can make a real virtue out of them. That scene in the The 39 Steps is actually pivotal to the characters’ relationship – and reminds me to try to raise my game wherever possible.

  11. #23 by Stacy on April 26, 2011 - 1:36 pm

    Hi Roz! Another great post. I agree that no scene should be boring to an author and if it is, it’s probably not necessary. But there are times I’m not into a scene because I’m being moody or tired or whatever. So if it’s not happening, I shelve it for a day or two and then go back. If I’m having the same reaction, then I know it’s got to go. And if it’s a scene that must be in, I start from scratch.

    • #24 by rozmorris on April 26, 2011 - 10:32 pm

      Stacy, that sounds like a good plan. Sometimes it’s hard to muster up the energy to write properly. But mostly I’ve found that I can brainstorm through it, telling myself to find the nugget of gold I haven’t spotted yet.

  12. #25 by P Dugan on April 27, 2011 - 5:45 pm

    Nice post!

    I’ve adjusted the way I think about scenes lately.

    My $.02…

    If a story is a complete emotional journey, and a scene is a microcosm of the story, then a scene should put the characters through a similar if not quite as intense emotional journey– line by line, moment by moment. Of course the scene is an emotional component within the larger story and must be written in the context of this section of the story. But varying the emotions of a character line by line, reaction by reaction, will liven up a scene and remove that flat feeling.

    • #26 by rozmorris on April 27, 2011 - 8:02 pm

      You’re absolutely right – each scene has to have the feeling of going somewhere. A tiny turn, a reversal – but as you say, a journey.

  13. #27 by Marcia on April 28, 2011 - 6:12 pm

    Thaks so much for this post! I was at a point where I had to ‘explain’ how a character fits into the story, and that is exactly how I will do it! You saved that part of my scene!

    • #28 by rozmorris on April 28, 2011 - 9:20 pm

      Yippee! Thanks for the feedback, Marcia!

  14. #29 by Victoria Rollison on April 30, 2011 - 7:46 am

    I had a problem in the novel I’m writing – Conspire. The characters had to fly from Prague to Islamabad and I worked out that this is not a short flight. So how do you keep readers entertained when your characters are stuck on a plane for a few hours? My second problem was that they had to work out where they were going before they could decide where the pilot would land (they were in a private jet). In the end, the second problem solved the first. The only way they could work out where they needed to go was to decode something that a dead colleague left for them. Suffice to say code breaking can take a while, especially when you don’t get it right straight away. Job done!

    • #30 by rozmorris on April 30, 2011 - 8:33 am

      Victoria, this is a great example. We know we need the scene – a fade-out won’t do. We have to keep them on that plane for a while, but what will they do? In situations like this you just have to go mining until you find the answer.

  15. #31 by Cally_Jackson on April 30, 2011 - 9:10 am

    I’m a new visitor to your blog (got here from Twitter) and really enjoyed this post. I’ve recently finished the 1st draft of my current manuscript and know there were some scenes that bored me. When I revise them, I’ll be keeping this post in mind.

    • #32 by rozmorris on April 30, 2011 - 9:21 am

      Thanks, Cally! That little voice saying ‘I’m bored’ is telling you something so important! Good luck with the revisions.

  16. #33 by ednah rosah n'cube on July 2, 2012 - 11:39 am

    Good piece of advice….I sometimes find myself reading hurriedly through a scene jus so i get to a much more interesting part…but then again I think these boring scenes are vital in a novel to make the excting ones stand out…

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