You know the feeling. You’ve been writing along, feeling the gut-punch of creating an awesome scene, and when you take a break and re-read, the scene reads flat. Limp. But you’re a pro, so you know this is probably just because you’re too close to it now, so you let it go and decide to come back later. Maybe you keep writing, maybe you go read a great book or do some research to reset your brain. But when you come back, it still sounds lifeless. There’s a lot of action– someone is in danger, someone revealed something painful, or maybe it’s a fight scene. Whatever scene it is, it’s one you need to really grip your readers and land that blow, but it’s just sitting there, and you know in your gut you didn’t deliver the punch you wanted to.
Don’t ignore that feeling. If you can sense that, you have fantastic instincts. That’s your writer’s brain trying to get your attention, saying “Hey- we’ve got a problem.”
If you think about that for a minute, that will lead us to the answer. A flat scene is one that’s not getting up off the page. It’s just sitting there. It’s not alive, it’s not true-to-life in some element. We’re seeing it through a character’s eyes, but somehow that character’s experience isn’t hitting us. And it should be.
That feeling tells you you’re missing something. But when you know where to look, it can be pretty easy to see what you’re missing.
A character’s experience breaks down into 5 separate things:
Thought– In 1st and 3rd person where we’re very close to the character, a character’s thought is often also exposition. For punchy scenes, blend them better. Use the character’s voice to phrase things, don’t use too much exposition, use thoughts that heighten the tension. Make as much of the exposition thought from the character as you can– this tightens the psychic distance (the distance from the readers to the character’s mind) and gets us right in the middle of things.
Action– Usually this one isn’t the culprit, but make sure things are happening. If it’s not a particularly active scene, don’t let people just sit there. Have them use actions and gestures that heighten tension and show their emotional state. Grip things, rearrange things, pace, throw things, etc. Reaction is a big part of action– most of what we do on a daily basis is reacting to something else, and reactions are powerful things. Use your character’s reactions to show how this is affecting him/her.
Dialogue– Technically dialogue is an action, but it’s a distinct one that often either dominates a scene or gets left out, so it’s separate. Check to make sure you’re not letting it take over the scene; sometimes what’s not said is more impacting. Let us read between the lines. Make sure, too, that you actually do have dialogue in there somewhere. People accuse, demand, and give ultimatums through dialogue. Most escalation happens through dialogue, so make sure that you have it, and that what you have contributes and is the best way to show the detail.
Sensation– We all know to use the senses when we’re writing, so bring us the action through textures, instincts, sounds, detailed sights, scents (which often carry memories), even taste. We can sense something that your character doesn’t, so channel the sensations to us through him.
Emotion– This one often gets the same treatment that dialogue does– way too much or none at all. The most impacting use of emotion is usually brief and powerful. We don’t need long, winding paragraphs that drown us in grief or loneliness. By the time the reader finishes those, the action has paused for so long we’re looking around for something to happen and we’ve lost interest. Basically, we don’t care. Keep it brief, make it deep, move on. But keep it going, too. Come back to how all these actions and dialogue and sensations and thoughts are affecting your character emotionally. We get worn thin. Old wounds get opened up. We become desperate. Sometimes we’ve just had it. Keep the emotional progression of your character advancing; don’t let what they’re feeling sit there. Make it go somewhere.
If a scene feels flat, it’s almost always one of two things- 1) either you’re showing, not telling (a different post) or 2) one or more of the 5 things above is missing from your scene. In all the pages I’ve seen come through slush or edited or written, most often I see emotion and thought being the ones missing or over/underdeveloped.
Check through your scene to see if you’re missing any of those. Use highlighters if you want, and color each one of the five a different color in your scene. See what dominates. See what’s missing or needs boosted. See if any moment carries more than one.
An impacting scene is a dense chemical blend. Miss one element, and it doesn’t affect us like it should. That denseness is important, too– if you’ve got all of those things happening, it’s a lot, but it can’t take forever on the page. Make sensations carry thought. So, combine them. Make action show emotion. Use dialogue to push the action. Get two or more from that list into each moment, and you’ll have something dense and impacting. Your scene won’t be flat; it will get up off the page and have a life of its own. We’ll walk into it, and you’ll have created something we can live in, too.