Sounds like, but it wasn’t. As a matter of fact, those opening paragraphs were falling flatter than a pancake. Even I was bored. The scene lacked something vital: a sense of energy and dynamism. A sense of motion. The chapter opens at the train station in Nairobi. My POV character, Danny Lager, stands on the end of the platform, frozen, as he recognizes the other character, John Quinn, approaching the ticket counter. All sorts of emotions are running through his brain. The scene is rich with narrative possibilities and suspense as it builds toward the confrontation that everyone (Danny, Quinn, myself, the readers) knows is coming. The problem, I realized, was that Danny was just standing there. He wasn’t doing anything—and, as a result, neither was my scene.
I’m a visual learner (as opposed to auditory or kinesthetic), and I lean heavily on that propensity in writing scenes. When something doesn’t feel right, I stop, close my eyes, and let the scene play out in my head, just as if it were a movie. My inner eye almost always knows what a scene should look like, and it almost always balks at static characters. Why? Because a character standing still—especially if he’s standing still just thinking—isn’t doing much to move the plot forward. Not only does he run the risk of presenting a flat visual landscape, he also lacks any actions that can be used to break up large chunks of narrative and dialogue.
A character who’s moving—even if he’s just walking across the street—gives the reader the sense that the story is moving forward along with him. His motion imparts a sense of progression and urgency that is vital for advancing the story.
I ended up ripping out my chapter’s opening paragraphs and starting over. This time around, Danny isn’t standing on the platform, waiting for Quinn to see him. Instead, he’s hard at work, loading sacks of seed into one of the train cars. By the time he looks up and sees Quinn, the scene already has a sense of forward progression thanks to his activity, and his internal narrative is divided into tighter chunks by mingling it with his actions.
Voila! A few quick changes resurrected my scene from its near-death experience with boredom.
If you find yourself struggling with a scene that feels flat or bloated, take a second look to make sure your characters are in motion. Unless there’s a good reason for their doing so, don’t let them just sit or stand around. Put them to work at something that will move both them and the plot forward.
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Story by K.M. Weiland