Use Motion to Spice up Your Scenes

Use Motion to Spice up Your Scenes

Use Motion to Spice up Your ScenesEver had one of those days when you sit down at your computer, only to find your character twiddling his thumbs? I was having one of those days last week. Chapter seven of my work-in-progress features all kinds of exciting conflict, including a long-awaited confrontation between two friends-turned-enemies. I got to introduce a fabulous new setting (the rugged, exotic diversity of early 20th-century Nairobi), play with some sizzling dialogue, and ramp up the action. Sounds like the perfect scene, right?

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 everyone knows is coming.

So what’s the problem?

Motionless Characters = Motionless Scenes

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 characters who are standing still—especially if they’re standing still just thinkingaren’t doing much to move the plot forward or spice up the scene. Not only does they run the risk of presenting a flat visual landscape, they also fail to offer any actions that can be used to break up large chunks of narrative and dialogue.

Character who are moving—even if they’re just walking across the street—give the reader the sense that the story is moving forward along with them. Their motion imparts a sense of progression and urgency that is vital for advancing the story.

The Simple Fix: Give Characters Something to Do

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s keeping your character moving in your latest scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This was really helpful for me today. I was just thinking about this yesterday and your blog post today made perfect sense about what was missing. Thanks for the advice!

  2. I’m kinesthetic (hands-on learner), so I don’t really picture a scene. If a section stalls for me, it’s often because I need to think about it and play with it some more.

  3. @Ezmirelda: Glad to hear it hit the spot!

    @Linda: I often get up to act out scenes, particularly when the choreography is difficult. You might have good luck with that.

  4. Chris Burdick says

    I learned this lesson the hard way. Thanks for the reminder! BTW, I purchased Conquering Writer’s Block and have listened to it through twice (I also make whoever is in the car with me listen also. :-)) and I love it! I’m going to boost my music collection to include more soundtracks. I love listening to music as I write. So thank you for the CD!

  5. So glad you enjoyed the CD! Makes my day to hear it was useful.

  6. Great advice! I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s brilliant. Thank you for sharing ;o)

  7. My rule of thumb (which certainly isn’t a universal rule) is that if it would look poorly in a movie shot, it could probably be made better on the page. Motion almost always looks better.

  8. Thanks for the tips

  9. You’re always welcome!

  10. Great post. I’m in editing mode right now so this is really useful. :o)

  11. Viva la editors!

  12. this is a super great tip! I’m in revisions right now, and I’ll keep an eye out for this~

    Thanks, girl! :o)

  13. The great thing about this little gaffe is that it’s usually lots of fun to correct.

  14. Hi K.M. I struggle with forgetting to add this element to my writing. This is a good reminder to go back and see where this can be slipped into the ms and create better images for the reader.
    Thanks

  15. Because fiction is a word-based medium, it’s easy for us to emphasize thoughts and dialogue to the extent of actions. But a balanced approach can really work wonders in perking up our scenes.

  16. Guess in your re-write you decided to vote Danny the one character most likely to sack seed.

  17. Pretty much!

  18. Hi Ms. Weiland!
    Lovely post! My editing stage is going to last an eternity. I found your post because I was trying to find out how to add action to scenes where the characters are researching. My story is about a lot of uncovering truths, digging for information and just research. Which, when read, is very BORING! I need help! What can I do to liven up the research scenes? I tried having my characters learn the information another way, but I just can’t think of anyway BUT getting on a computer (possibly a phone) and researching. Can you lend any advice?
    PS Loved your book, Outlining Your Novel!

    Shelby

    • Research scenes: (1) Put these info gathering scenes in conflict. One character wants info, the other doesn’t want him to get it.

      (2) Or have the info in the form of secret documents, squirreled away in a secure location. MC has to break in, evade guards, and steal the information before more guards arrive.

      (3) The character with the info LIES, tells the MC the exact opposite of the truth. This is especially effective if you can tip the audience off as to the reality beforehand.

      (4) Skip the info gathering scenes. Do a montage of paper shuffling clips, then have the MC summarize the major finding to another character.

      (5) As in (4), but with computer screens.

  19. Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you enjoyed Outlining Your Novel. I’m assuming the importance of your scene is the relaying of the research info to the reader more than the actual action of discovering it. If that’s the case, you can probably get away with summarizing most of it. If possible, you might consider using two characters who will have opposing reactions to the info to discuss the research.

  20. ROBERT EASTERBROOK says

    I still have a chapter in an earlier work that has the character sitting through the entire scene. All he did – in the beginning – was think over his life situation. Ok for him, but boring for the reader. The way I ‘fixed’ it was to introduce another character for him to talk to – he chats with his counterpart on his homeworld. The beginning and ending of the scene is ‘static’ narrative, though the end – to make it transition smoothly into the next chapter – I mixed what he was thinking with what he was doing; I got him to search a database for stuff while he thought aloud. This was an early scene to introduce the character so there was bound to be an issue with it because it showed him travelling in space, something he was always doing. Some people say it’s better not to show a character travelling from one place to another (just show them leaving and arriving), but it depends on the story; my character spends a lot of time travelling, so I thought I had to show him in at least one of these travel moments alone. Context. (The next travel scene heightens the tension.) I couldn’t think of anything else to do with the character in this introductory scene. I guess it’s similar to what you experienced in your scene, K. – Danny was standing on the platform doing nothing but thinking. My character, Raxxman, was sitting in his in-flight cubicle thinking. Having him speak with another character not only dealt with the ‘static’ nature of the scene but helped the plot move forward because this was the moment Raxxman learned he was about to be tasked with a new investigation that would put him unsuspectingly right in the middle of rising tension that is the novel’s story. The first plot point?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dialogue is great for this. Dialogue is arguably the most interesting part of any story, so any time we can use to it to good effect is a bonus.

  21. Thanks K.M !
    A very moving change that I would definitely consider in my stories.

    Exciting work ahead!!

  22. I recall a scene where someone has to talk to the Pope. Rather than using a predictable, formal, Baroque palace room, the writer put it in the Vatican’s indoor pool, with the character walking back and forth as the Pope swims.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! That’s awesome. Changing up setting is often a great way to infuse life in an otherwise one-dimensional scene.

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