Most Common Writing Mistakes: Is Nothin’ Happening in Your Scene?

What happens next? is the question we all want to inspire (in breathless tones) from our readers. But in order for something to happen next, something has to happen to begin with. At first glance, that one’s a no-brainer, but it’s actually ridiculously easy to write scene after scene in which one big fat stinking hunk of nothin’ happens. In fact, it’s possible to write an entire novel in which nothing happens—although significantly less possible to get said novel published.

Let’s take a look-see at some of the signs your scene may be more of the nothin’ sort than the happenin’ sort.

1. The Daily Routine Scene

Occasionally, detailed descriptions of a character’s daily routine can be both interesting and edifying, but, too often, this is just a stalling technique on the part of an author who is still getting to know the character himself and/or doesn’t yet know what’s supposed to happen next.

2. The Backstory Scene

Backstory is a crucial part of any novel, but it has to be wielded skillfully so it shares information only when and as it becomes necessary. A scene of backstory, explaining your character’s job history as he arrives at his current workplace, is probably not only unnecessary, but also a sign that not much is hopping at the current workplace.

3. The Chitchat Scene

Dialogue is often one of the most energetic, conflict-heavy, plot-progressing elements of any story, but it only works if it actually progresses the plot. Two characters sitting around passing the time of day and exchanging those niceties are that are boring enough in real life, never mind fiction, should inspire a magnetic pull between the author’s forefinger and the delete button.

4. The Too-Much Description Scene

Description is a good thing—a very, very good thing—since the author’s description of his characters and settings are the only medium through which readers can view and interpret the story. But too much of a good thing is still too much. A scene that focuses primarily on description is a scene in which you can almost guarantee not much is happening.

5. The Pointless Monologue Scene

The character’s extended thoughts, told via narrative, must always have a point, must always drive the plot forward. If all your character is doing is musing about the fact that she really should replace her chipped nail polish or that his latest customer is the 113th person in a row to order a chai latte—it’s probably a sign that not much is happening in this scene.

6. The Been-There-Done-That Scene

Repetitive scenes are easy traps to fall into, especially since authors often forget what they’ve already written and what they haven’t. But once you’ve established your character’s modus operandi as a safe-cracker, you don’t need to go over it again, in detail, in a subsequent scene.

7. The “Just Killing Time” Scene

“Sequel” scenes, in which characters take a breather from the nonstop action, are a vital part of pacing. But it’s just as vital that these scenes move the plot forward. Don’t let your characters sit around rehashing their tough day or staring at the cracks in the ceiling. Make sure their actions and dialogue continue to move the plot forward.
If you can keep something happening in all your scenes, you’re sure to keep readers glued to every single page!z

Tell me your opinion: Is your latest scene a “happenin’ scene” or a “nothin scene”?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m in the middle of revisions, so this list will come in very handy. Thanks so much. I’m pretty good with all those but The Backstory Scene and the Been-There-Done-That Scenes are killing me. Good think I have an excellent beta reader.

  2. We all stumble into these traps from time to time. As long as we have someone to watch our backs, everything will turn out just fine.

  3. I so badly struggled with this in my previous novels, but in my WIP, as I’m writing each scene, the voice of K.M. Weiland is in my head saying, “Does this scene matter? Does it move the story forward? :p

    In the last scene, Joe has a nightmare about the secret he’s trying to keep.

  4. It’s sooo easy to write scenes that seem interesting and pertinent, only to realize they really have nothing important to say about the story. Those are always good questions to ask before writing any scene.

  5. I recently eliminated a couple of planned chapters in my WIP because as I sat down to write them I realized they did not move the story forward even an inch. Nothing was happening. I just skipped to the chapter that had the next action scene and went from there.

  6. Always great when we can eliminate boring scenes *before* going to the trouble of writing them!

  7. Thanks for the reminder

  8. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

  9. Great timing with this interesting post. I am both editing my latest novel, Lulu Love, Teenage Ghost and I am posting on scene writing. My latest offering is about writing the first sentence of the first scene in your novel.

    It is so easy to write a scene that does nothing and then you can spend a long time wondering why the scene doesn’t work (or I can anyway 🙂 ). Your post is great in pointing out common errors. I shall be looking for these in a pass during my edit. I have found another useful tool is to ask yourself the question; “What is the purpose of this scene?” If you can’t give an enthuasiastic lift journey length answer, bin it.

  10. This is so true. A very common mistake, indeed. It’s so easy to “so fall in love” with our words that we don’t pay attention to the fact that NOTHING is happening. Also, when your 1st scene is void of activity, you’re seriously in danger of sabotaging your work. Was just reading advice David Morrell has to combat that. So this is a good topic. Thanks.

  11. @Christopher: You’re absolutely right. Knowing the purpose of each scene is vital, and yet it’s something we often overlook until we instinctively realize something isn’t quite working.

    @Pedro: First scenes are often egregious offenders in the realm of “nothin’ happening.” In large part, this is because authors are still getting to know their stories and their characters in the first chapter and haven’t yet figured out where they want to go. Usually, just deleting the opening scene goes a long way toward cutting to the action.

  12. some of my scenes are bordering dangerously on 2,3 and 5. Need to heavily edit or erase them. Great post!

  13. Discovering the weak spots in our scenes is always bittersweet. They’re not perfect, but at least we know how to fix them!

  14. Definitely guilty of the description and chitchat bits in the rough drafts. Sometimes I write that stuff when I’m trying to get going on a scene, and then carve the good stuff out of it later. 🙂 Thanks for the tips! I will have to keep this in mind when outlining. 🙂

  15. Same here. Sometimes you just gotta let the words flow, even if they’re dribble, in that first draft. Then go back and cut them down to sense in the revisions.

  16. Difficult for me to make my characters miserable but must be done.

  17. It is rather ironic. We love these characters to pieces, but, as I point out in Outlining Your Novel, we’re really playing the part of the antagonist, blocking protagonist at every turn and making him suffer.

  18. I know this post is old but I’m still catching up on all your helpful blog articles!
    Question though:
    I have a scene in the first 25% of the book where the MC is just having coffee and dinner with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. The scene hints at my MC’s attraction to her sister’s boyfriend (and vice versa) that later blooms into a romance, shows the MC’s comfortable, trusting relationship with her sister that later proves how deceptive the sister has been when it’s revealed she is really the mastermind behind the book’s evil plot (hidden till the end), and introduces a little pertinent backstory through conversation. All that justifies a “having coffee and dinner” scene where there’s not really any exciting action going on, doesn’t it? Or is there really a better way I could do those things?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Here are the bottom-line questions to ask yourself about the pertinence of any scene: Does the character have a goal? Is that goal being met by an obstacle? And does that obstacle result in a new complication that dominoes into the next scene’s goal? If yes to all three, the scene is pertinent, possesses conflict, and is likely to be interesting to readers.

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