Hello, writer, and welcome back to The Novel Series, a multi-part blog post series about writing novels and other forms of fiction. I’ll be posting at least one, if not two, blogs from this series every month until it’s complete.
Catch up and read the previous posts:
- Part I: How Long Should Your Manuscript Be?
- Part II: How Long Should Chapters & Scenes Be?
- Part III: How to Choose a POV for Your Novel
- Part IV: How to Write Realistic Dialogue in Fiction
- Part V: Story Beats and How to Find Them
- Part VI: How to Write a Scary Villain
Or, click here to see the full series.
Today’s topic is the scene. More specifically, we’re talking about why scenes might fall flat.
// When Scenes Fall Flat
Have you ever read over your work, excited to review what you’ve written, and just… felt no interest in it? Has the scene ever felt dull, boring, or otherwise yawn-inducing? Your scene is probably falling flat on its face.
Don’t worry! You can fix your scenes, even the flat ones, by figuring out what isn’t working. I can’t give you a magic formula for why your scene is flat, but I do have ten possible explanations for you to review.
// Too Much Dialogue
The first reason your scene may fall flat is too much dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of dialogue. It can add so much interest to a scene. But if you rely on your dialogue to do the heavy lifting–especially if it’s unnatural speech–then you’ve endangered your scene.
How much is too much depends not only on the scene itself, but the story, the characters, and your style. My rule of thumb is that if you’re writing more than 70% dialogue with little to no action or exposition, you’ve way overwritten your dialogue. Sprinkle in more action, exposition, and internal dialogue, then review your changes.
// Too Much Exposition
On the other hand….
The second reason your scene may fall flat is too much exposition!
Exposition is basically background information that you provide to your readers. It’s important to help readers understand the world they’ve entered and characters they’ve met, but it’s so easy to info dump and drag the scene down.
If you must find ways to incorporate the exposition, then you can make a couple of revisions.
First, try switching some of the background information to dialogue. Maybe one character has to explain it to another. This gives you the opportunity to increase your dialogue and character action;be sure you keep the background info to just a few sentences.
You can also punctuate the exposition with character action and dialogue instead of transforming the exposition into dialogue. If you have three short paragraphs with background information, have the character recall this as they’re doing other things. This will break it up and make your exposition feel less like an info dump.
And finally, you can rework the exposition to be small story details. Readers don’t necessarily need to know that full history of 100 years of religious war in your fantasy world. Instead, have characters mention it in passing or let readers see a memorial. This type of worldbuilding cuts down on info dumps but still offers readers a glimpse of the not-so-crucial history.
// Few Descriptions About Setting
The third reason your scene may fall flat is not enough worldbuilding.
It’s all about balance in fiction. You want to offer descriptions about the world and the timeline we’re in, but you don’t want to fall into that exposition trap I just mentioned. How do you do this?
You want to give readers a window into your world without being overly descriptive. Tell us the ambiance of a room, the colors and textures, and the smell of a city. But if it’s not important to the story, don’t be overly prescriptive.
We might not need the exact layout of a tavern your characters just entered. We probably don’t need to know there are 17 tables spaced three feet apart, each with four chairs, and the farthest table is exactly 11 paces from the stairwell, which is 28 paces from the front door.
Instead, mention that there are more than a dozen tables spread equally, and the colors and ambiance of the room. Engage our five senses for subtle, consistent description.
// Focusing on Only One Character
Most stories have more than one character, and if you focus too much on one, it’s hard for readers to get a clear picture of what’s going on.
One of the best ways to get readers invested in your story is creating characters they find interesting or grow attached to. Make sure we have more than one character to follow and learn from.
Even if your story focuses on one main protagonist, give the side characters their fair share of “screen time.”
// Passive Side Characters
In the same vein, your secondary characters shouldn’t be passive just because they’re secondary. They need an active role in the story, too.
Obviously side characters won’t be as important as the protagonist, but don’t just throw them in randomly because you feel the need to switch it up. Every character should have their own development and purpose, not just be there to shout, “yeah!” when the protagonist needs backup.
// No Atmosphere
When I say atmosphere, I don’t mean the description of your setting, though that does come into play here.
Your scene’s feeling needs to match what’s going on in the plot. You build up the atmosphere through description, internal struggles, action, emotions, and dialogue. If these pieces of the puzzle aren’t working together, you won’t have an atmosphere.
Think of it like a fancy, romantic restaurant. Sure, the food should be good, but you also probably expect dim lighting, candles on the table, quiet guests, servers dressed in appropriately formal uniforms, and soft music. All of these little pieces work together to build the atmosphere of the restaurants, just as all of the pieces of your scene work together.
If you want to make a scene spooky, but you don’t feel creeped out while reading it, dissect it bit by bit until you figure out what’s not fitting in correctly.
// No character motivation or goals
Stories exist because characters are working towards something. If the characters have no motivations or goals to work towards, there’s no story.
If you find your scene is directionless, remind your characters why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe someone needs to tell them to focus in the dialogue, or maybe they need to have something taken away to reaffirm what their ultimate goal is.
// No tension or conflict
Besides no character motivation, there has to be tension and conflict to make a scene work. A story can’t be as simple as getting from Point A to Point B; that’s boring and would be finished in 20 seconds.
If you find you have no tension in a scene, add a problem.
Maybe your two characters get into an argument. Maybe someone trips and this delays them from getting someplace on time. Maybe their plans blow up in their faces and nothing goes according to plan. Maybe they get arrested for some reason.
Or maybe it’s as simple as the character being conflicted about their next steps. Tension and conflict can be internal, too, and having a balance of external conflict with internal tension is important for any story.
// Odd Pacing
Another reason your scene might be falling flat is inappropriate pacing. Maybe things are going too quickly and it feels like you’re rushing through as you read with no time to pause and catch up. Or maybe it’s trudging along so slowly that you want to tear your hair out.
Whatever the case, judge the pacing against the scene’s purpose and structure. A fight scene should move along but not be so fast that it reads as easy. Likewise, a political meeting shouldn’t move so slowly that you want to skip ahead.
Use your best judgment and go with your gut on the pacing. How you feel is how most readers will feel.
// Poor Word Choice/Sentence structure
The tenth reason your scene might be falling flat is poor word choice and/or sentence structure. This ends up being less of a storytelling flaw and more of a technical one.
Word choice can make or break a scene, as can your sentence structure. Word choice should be appropriate not only for your characters, but your time period, world, and other factors.
If you’re writing a novel set in 2019 (or relatively modern times), stay away from antiquated language unless there’s a reason your character uses it. Similarly, don’t plug in synonyms just for the sake of using “bigger” words.
The thesaurus can be your best friend, but it can also be your enemy. You can’t take words just for their literal definition, but their connotation, too (aka their tone). For example, if you search synonyms for, “walk,” you’ll get many choices: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, hike, trek, march, wander, prowl, and the list goes on. They’re all synonyms for walking, but they all convey very different feelings and images.
Sentence structure may also make your scene fall flat. You should try to vary your sentences and use them to create a rhythm. Mix longer, complex sentences with shorter, simpler ones. Don’t use all simple sentences to try to create tension, either; this reads as choppy. You want your words to flow.
Poor word choice and sentence structure can be improved with practice and getting feedback from editors.
// Your Next Steps
Figuring out why your scene is falling flat is arguably one of the hardest parts of revisions. We can become so entrenched in our work and vision that we can’t objectively identify the issue.
If you’re still having trouble, reach out to beta readers or critique partners for budget-friendly feedback. Or, consider hiring a writing coach to spend some one-on-one time working with you and building your skills.