Spicing Up a Bland Scene

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably run into this hideous monster—the bland scene. I woke up to that sucker this morning. You know the one I mean, right? That ho-hum scene you don’t feel like writing? The one that needs to be there because it conveys some information or does something that moves the protagonist forward but is just…blah. Have you been there? I struggle with at least one of those in every book.

The hard truth is, if you’re bored writing a scene, chances are high your readers will be bored reading it. There’s an easy remedy for this. Before I start writing a scene, especially one I’m anticipating will be boring, I ask myself two questions:

1. What does the protagonist (or POV character) want in this scene?

2. What is the problem? Or what is the obstacle standing in the way of the character getting what he wants?

These two questions help me develop the conflict in the scene (if I don’t already know it.) Friction is the fuel of writing. Without it, everything is easy and perfect, and there’s really no story.

Who cares if Mr. Perfect with his perfect life goes to his favorite cafe and gets a latte with a perfect foam panda in it? On Facebook or Instagram that might be fine. In a book, it’s horribly boring. What if Mr. Painfully Shy goes to the cafe he kind of hates because that’s where his ex dumped him, but he’s there because he has a crush on the cute but arrogant barista who works there? Or maybe he’s being chased by the mob and needs a place to hide, but the barista is giving him a hard time for not buying something before locking himself in the bathroom? Maybe the barista turns into a flame-breathing dragon and starts cooking everyone in the cafe?

Okay, so those are really stupid examples, but you get the idea, right? By declaring to myself what the character wants and identifying what is standing in his way in that particular scene, the scene becomes more fun to write.

In the scene I’m writing today, my protagonist (yes, that would be Thomas if you’ve been reading this blog) must help his lover question the victim of a crime. The protagonist’s scene objective is to get information on the criminal, so he and his lover can bring him to justice. That’s pretty straightforward. And boring. Hello, ho-hum scene. Why? Because I haven’t identified an obstacle. If the victim is cooperative, and everything goes smoothly, what’s the fun in that? Why should I expect a reader to care?

So, the problem is the victim is severely intellectually challenged. He’s traumatized and getting him to talk is difficult. To make matters worse, my protagonist’s lover is impatient and brusque. His bad cop style isn’t useful in this situation. Now, my protagonist has two problems: getting information from an especially vulnerable, traumatized victim while protecting him from his hot headed lover—and getting that lover to cool down. (Really, I guess, that’s three problems.) Another monkey wrench I threw in here is that Thomas, being physically disabled, identifies with the disabled victim more than the average person might. This makes his internal reaction to his lover’s insensitivity especially painful.

Not only is this scene much more interesting to write, it will be, hopefully, more interesting to read. Is Thomas up to the task? Of course he is! But making it difficult for him is what makes writing the scene and reading it interesting. Making Thomas solve problems and giving him difficult things to do makes him a better person. He becomes more real, both to me and, hopefully, to readers.

Here’s another example from my book, Know Thy Demons: Book One of the Love Songs for Lost Worlds Trilogy, in which a protagonist fails his scenic goal.

There’s a scene where the protagonist, Frank, tries to get back with his ex, Jovan and fails. Earlier in the day, Jovan offered to stop by the restaurant where Frank works to help him with a problem. (Frank understood the demon they summoned in class and is deeply confused.) This could be a simple scene where Frank asks Jovan out on a date, and Jovan declines. After all, getting back with Jovan is Frank’s scenic goal, and failing is what I need to happen. But that’s a big snorefest.

So, Jovan doesn’t show up at the restaurant alone. He’s there with his new girlfriend. And Frank is busier than normal because he offered to take a large, hopping section of the restaurant for his sick friend. Frank has ADHD (something I don’t reveal in the series, but is sort of an Easter egg) and doesn’t always deal well with high stress situations. Basically, I’ve set him up for failure and taken away his ability to meet his scenic goal. He accosts Jovan in the men’s room and ends up punching a wall and hurting his hand. Jovan takes care of him, but doesn’t simply tell him he doesn’t love him—he says he feels sorry for him. Ouch.

This plunges Frank into the depths where I need him to be before something happens that changes his life forever. A setup scene that could have been pretty mundane ended up being an intense dramatic scene that I enjoyed writing.

With a little spice, bland scenes can become some of your favorites. So, spice it up and have fun!

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Imagining Characters Through Time

So many sad, disturbing things are happening in the real world right now, so, of course, I have to go inside my imaginary writer’s world and make things weird there, too. I’m writing a paranormal romance novel set in 1888 in the Old West of the U.S. Today, because I’m living through such “interesting” times, I started thinking about what things would happen in the lives of my main characters.

In 1888, they’re in their early twenties. They’re Civil War babies. In some ways, they have just escaped it, but its effects and racism still loom over them in 1888. Thomas will be forty-nine when the Great War breaks out. U.S. servicemen in World War I ranged in age from eighteen to sixty. I don’t think Thomas would have been eligible to serve, since he is disabled, but Hadrian is fit and a police officer. I’m sure he would have been conscripted. He probably would even volunteer. What sort of adventures would he have? Would he make it home to Thomas?

And what would Thomas do while his lover is abroad, fighting on foreign soil? I’m sure he would do most of his typical Thomasy things. Talking to restless spirits. Going around town in his invalid carriage with his cat. Cars would be in fashion, so he would probably have a car by then. Would he drive it himself? The idea of my rather uptight Thomas driving a car makes me smile.

Thomas would be fifty-three in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic hits. If Hadrian survived the Great War, what sort of condition would he be in? Would he survive the pandemic? What about sweet Thomas? He’s already in poor health. With his asthma, I’m not even sure how he made it to twenty-three. What would the pandemic be like for him? Would he make it? Would he hole up in his mansion with Hadrian? There was no Amazon, then. How would they get things they needed?

What will they think of World War II? They’ll be in their seventies then. It must seem terrible to see such a thing having lived through World War I. How cataclysmic it must seem. How frightening. They would have survived so much, but time keeps whirling by, a plow through hard earth throwing up weeds and dirt.

They’ll be long dead before they’re ever able to legally marry in the U.S. Would they even be buried together?

It’s not like I’m even planning a series or anything with these two. It’s simply that some weird part of me worries about them and almost needs to write more stories about them just to make sure they’re okay.

This is the kind of thing I don’t think many readers understand about writers. Our characters are real people to us. They live and breathe. We have coffee and tea with them. We worry about them going out into the wide world like a mother kissing her kindergartener goodbye on the first day of school.

We give them to you as an act of love, because they have been our friends on whatever journey we have taken, and we hope they will be yours.

Be a Writer, Not a Jerk

Someone who will never really be a writer.

This really should go without saying, but if you want to be a writer, don’t be a jerk—especially to people in the industry who are trying to help you.

I follow a popular writing blog by an author of some amazing fantasy works as well as a series of helpful writing books. For years, she has been helping writers and authors, trying to lift people up. When people comment on her posts, she answers them—even when the answer to the question should be obvious. She will even answer the old posts if they ask a direct question. She’s just a really helpful, nice person.

Some guy has been commenting on her latest post acting like he knows everything. I can almost guarantee you this dweeb has never published anything—either traditionally or independently. I’ve taken creative writing classes and been involved in writing groups and attended writing conferences for about thirty years. I’ve seen this type of writer before way too many times. The dilettante. The guy who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know—a walking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The bully who thinks he can elevate himself by dragging others down.

Don’t. Be. That. Guy.

Part of being a writer, part of being an artist, part of being a decent human creature, is humility. Yes, we often feel like gods when we’re constructing that perfect outline or are writing in that heady flow where words and images flash in our minds faster than our fingers can type. But it’s also important to remember that we are, at the end of the day, mere mortals—fallible beings reaching for stars we might never catch. If we’re smart, we’re always learning. Eternal students forever striving to perfect our craft.

You don’t know everything. Neither do I. That’s the beauty of the struggle. That’s part of the excitement. Part of the joy that should wake you up every morning and encourage you to write your heart out.

Don’t hurt people who want to help you. Don’t thumb your nose at mentors and teachers. Every one of them will tell you they don’t have all of the answers, either, but they may well have some that you don’t. Don’t write angry letters to editors and agents who reject your work. It only makes you look bad.

Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. The world has enough prima donnas, enough jerks, enough Dunning-Kruger morons. What the world needs are your stories—maybe now more than ever. It doesn’t need egotistical posturing.

So don’t be a jerk, be a writer! Soak up every bit of knowledge you can! And write, write, write!