Today’s post is written by Alex Limberg.
In a thrilling murder mystery, your detective has just found out that the villain and his partner in crime will be meeting in the abandoned slaughterhouse. The scene before and the scene after are packed with suspense. But how does your protagonist pass the two days until the showdown? Will you show him brushing his teeth and going to the toilet? There is just nothing happening!
This post will give you a practical roadmap for how to make the in-between sexy.
(Also, because I know excess length in stories is often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here or at the end of this post to check your story for superfluous parts and any other imaginable weakness.)
Here are the essential steps to turn an annoying appendix of your story into a narrative goldmine:
1. Preferably Trash It
Your first choice should always be to get rid of any in-betweens that don’t advance your plot. To show your protagonist getting out of bed, showering and preparing his breakfast would slow your story down ridiculously, destroy its rhythm and bore the boots off your readers.
There is a storytelling rule that says, “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” You can observe this rule in meticulous action in screenplays and movies. Filmmakers in particular can’t afford to bore their audience for even one second. With the ultra-short attention span of today’s music video culture, viewers will just cold-bloodedly switch channels.
However, sometimes you will have your very own reasons to show an additional scene: You want to expand the character, display her habits or show the passage of time, convey boredom or slow down the rhythm on purpose, go deeper with realism in your story, etc. There are a million possible motives.
Should you decide to hang on to your scene, keep it entertaining with one or more of the following techniques:
2. Use More Dialogue: Make It about People
Instead of worrying how to fill those pages, see them as an awesome opportunity to breathe more life into your characters. In most scenes, your plot needs to advance your story, but now your character has a chance to fully take the stage and showcase a brand new side of herself. If the story is about her professional life, make that scene about her private life; if the story is about her bright side, make that scene about her dark side—and the other way around.
You might also use the scene to introduce new relationships we don’t know about yet. New relationships can give a deeper glimpse into your character’s personality and show her in a different light.
Each of us human beings is a complete drama on his own, and if you take a close look, utterly entertaining in one way or another. Use your pages so your reader gets to know your characters better, and your entire work will profit!
3. Use More Action: Make It about Drama
Better yet, when you get several of us together, the drama is exponentiated. Use your scene for a mini-plot, a play within the play, even if it’s just about everyday drama like a girl forgetting her handbag on the bus.
The overarching plot plays from beginning to end of the entire novel. In turn, your mini-plot could play from beginning to end of the scene, with a similar structure. For example: Introduction; problem arises; first attempt at solution; new twist and problem even worsens in climax; problem gets solved; happy end.
If you want the complete ballad of the forgotten handbag, how about this:
Girl cheerfully rides on a bus, thinking of happy days (introduction); while she is waiting for her connecting bus, she realizes she has forgotten her handbag (problem arises); she enters the first bus again only to discover the bag isn’t there anymore (attempt at solution, problem worsens in climax); she asks the driver in desperation and learns that somebody has found the bag and taken it to a lost property office (problem solved); happily she goes to pick it up (happy end).
Of course, you can also let a character play through the whole sequence solely in his mind. For example, let him worry about horrible outcomes of the main plot and he won’t even have to move or to interact with anybody to create drama.
If you are bored, just make things more difficult for your characters: A nightly walk through the park is a lot more suspenseful if you are not sure if somebody is following you. If nothing else helps, you can always fall back on conflict to spice up your tale.
Make sure your mini-plot fits the kind of story you are telling and doesn’t overwhelm your main plot. A comedy with the mini-plot of a mad axe murderer can be done, but you have to make sure to hit the right note . . .
4. Use More Questions: Make It about Suspense
Suspense is always about questions: Who is the murderer? Will Godzilla eat the city? What secret does Gary hide from Kimberly? Your readers will never get bored as long as there are nagging questions on their minds.
In your in-between scene, you have two choices:
Option one, you could spin a question of the overall plot further; for example letting your character contemplate if Craig can even be the murderer, because he was on vacation the entire time; letting your readers know that Godzilla has eaten another block; hinting at that breathtaking secret of Gary’s.
Or your mini-plot could create suspense by raising a question on its own. In the example above, it would be the question: Will the girl ever get her handbag back?
In the end, dealing with in-between sections is about giving your scenes a life of their own. This is something you should do anyways in any scene, so it’s good practice. Just as you have your plot and your character development in the overarching story, you now bring the same things into your single scene on a smaller scale.
Now let’s hear it from you: What’s your best advice for dealing with scenes that don’t drive your plot? Let us know in the comments!
Alex Limberg is the founder of ‘Ride the Pen’, a creative writing blog dissecting famous writers (works, not bodies); his blog includes detailed writing prompts. Check your story for superfluous parts and other weaknesses with his free e-book (download here) about ’44 Key Questions’ to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency and with camera and lighting in the movie business. He has also lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.