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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Writing While Evil

Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.

Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.

And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.

It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.

I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.

But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.

Know Your Characters

blue_eyeToday, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.

For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.

A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.

So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.

How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.

Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.

A Drop of Blood to Bring Characters to Life

actorProbably my favorite part of writing is developing characters. It’s like meeting new friends. There’s an indescribable, magical element to it that is thrilling and unique. I enjoy writing about characters that are very different from me. I like the challenge and, well, it’s exciting! But when you’re working in deep POV (also called third person close or third person limited), it can be tough getting inside the head of a character who’s so different. Here’s how I do it:

I start by leaving myself a backdoor. Computer programmers will sometimes leave a “backdoor” in their code, a way to sneak in if they need to. I do this with my characters. I build a character with various physical and emotional attributes, a unique personality (Myers-Briggs can be helpful with this!), and a suitable back story. I try to make these true to the character and let him develop in a way that is different from me.

But then, I add a backdoor, sometimes two or three, but at least one. I add something that the character and I have in common. So, Bradley from my m/m contemporary romance, Zen Alpha, is a tall, beautiful, twenty-five year old redheaded openly gay man who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is a tech support specialist, has expensive tastes that are beyond his means, and is intent on having an alpha male boyfriend. Bradley Evans and I have nothing in common. Like, squat.

So, I gave him a narcissistic mother. Being the child of a narcissistic parent changes a person in fundamental ways. I know, because my own mother is a narcissist. I used this fact to shape and highlight certain aspects of his personality. It even explains why he is so fascinated with his emotionally abusive boyfriend, Jackson, and why he holds himself at a distance from his sexy neighbor, kind, authentic Ward.

His mother was my backdoor into his character. In essence, I gave him a piece of myself. It’s sort of like molding a clay golem, then bringing it to life with a drop of your blood. Sometimes giving a character a piece of yourself hurts, because you have to confront something of yourself in the manuscript. Sometimes that’s difficult.

However, once you crawl inside your character, you’re in! The rest kind of falls into place. You end up with an interesting, round character that is fun to write about. So, bring your character to life and enjoy slipping into deep POV.

If you’re interested in reading Zen Alpha, you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited, or buy it on Amazon. If you would like to review it, contact me at: everwintergreen@gmail.com for a reviewer copy.

Happy writing!

There’s Only One Way…

No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)

But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?

I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”

Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.

There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

Truth in Fiction

My fantasy stories might not seem autobiographical, but I use elements of my own past and emotional landscape when crafting my characters. I know what it’s like to lose a parent (not to death, but to other things)–but what if that loss had been the result of a brutal murder? I take the pain I know and extrapolate. I mold and twist until I’ve wrought something unique from my own experience. I do this over and over, constantly.

I think it creates realistic character emotion and depth, and it’s extremely therapeutic. When I write, I do so with the knowledge that there’s a possibility no one will read that book, no one will connect with it, it will exist forever alone and unloved. But that’s okay, because it gave me the chance to fight my demons again, to win the battle, to put them back in their cages once more.