You know that feeling when your writing starts to just get thin? Like if it was a three-dimensional being, it would be so insubstantial it would just faff about and never get anything remotely interesting or useful done?
Yeah. I think most of us have written scenes like that. And it can get even worse during NaNoWriMo, when you’re pushing yourself to meet your daily word count, and you’re running out of steam and getting discouraged because you’re not sure what to say and oh my gosh what am I going to do, I’m never going to finish this, and I may as well just quit now, there’s no way I can reach this word count by the end of the day, let alone 50,000 by the end of the month (or whatever your goal is).
*takes deep breath, in and out*
Too many of my writing sessions have looked like this: pushing myself to meet a self-imposed deadline and getting down on myself because my writing is getting thinner and thinner by the minute.
We need easy ways to jazz up a scene, to beef it up a little without having to throw a dragon into the mix (though you could do that, too). If you’re suffering from writer’s block, pick one of these ideas, throw it at the page, and see if it sticks. Worst case scenario, you and your character will have fun trying!
1. First impressions
Describe the first thing your character encounters when they enter a room. Don’t just rely on sight here. Explore the other senses. Your character’s first impression could be of:
- the scent of baking bread wafting in from the kitchen
- the whine of a printer, spitting out page after page
- the rickety, give-way-any-second floor of a poorly built attic
2. Conversation interrupts
When we’re writing a conversation between characters, or even a monologue, we sometimes try to break it up with a character taking a sip of water, or one interrupting the other. Try an interrupt that has nothing to do with the character(s) themselves, like a coffee machine that runs on a timer, or a flock of squawking seagulls swooping in to help themselves to the bread someone started throwing for them.
3. Break something
Stories don’t unfold in a static, unchanging universe - it’s meant to be some form of reality, even if it’s a fantastical one - but sometimes it seems that way. Nothing ever goes into disrepair or breaks. Have a lightbulb burn out, or a shoelace snap, or a pen spurt ink all over someone’s fingers. (That happened to me as I was getting ready to attend my grandad’s funeral. All dressed up, feeling sedate, and the ink went all over my hand. I’m pretty sure I heard him giggle ...)
4. Weather the storm
Make use of the weather in the scene. If it’s raining and your character is hurrying along the sidewalk, under an awning, have a giant splot of water splash on their nose. If it’s windy, too, do you really think that umbrella is going to stay right side out? Sunshine, snow, hail, lightning storms, they all have their quirks.
5. Add to a collection
Is there anything your character collects, officially or “just because”? Maybe they’ll carefully cut the stamp from an envelope and soak it, stamp side down, in water to remove it from the paper (only with the older stamps, though, this doesn’t work with those newfangled sticker-stamps). Another character might gather wildflowers to press between the pages of their textbooks, save their change to help pay for a vacation, or Depression glass bowls because they grew up idolizing their grandmother’s collection.
Isn’t it about time your character came down with something? A cold, perhaps, or seasonal allergies? The whole tone of a scene can change if your character is blowing their nose every other sentence, or if they have to reassure a teacher that no, they’re not crying at only getting 80% on an assignment, their eyes are just watering. Not that that’s a true story or anything ...
7. Technical difficulties
Handy as they are, cell phones can also be finicky beasts. They can run out of battery power at inopportune times, send some texts while losing others, or simply refuse to turn on. Then there’s apps that develop bugs, computers that bluescreen incessantly, and DVD movies that play perfectly except for the penultimate romantic scene, thanks to a smudge on the surface of the disk.
Have your character do a favour for someone, either unsolicited or upon request. It could be as simple as mailing a letter or as lengthy as driving someone to the next town for a college campus tour.
9. Early riser
Wake your character an hour or two earlier than normal, thanks to something like an incorrectly set alarm or a blown power transformer. Play out the effects of this in any scenes that take place that day.
10. “I didn’t mean it (but I did) ...”
In the scene you’re writing, what’s something your character is thinking but doesn’t intend to say out loud? Get it out of them somehow. Provoke them, startle them, bribe them to get it off their chest, and then explore the fallout.
11. Do the unthinkable
Tempt your character to do something they would never do. They don’t need to actually cross the line, it could be enough to have them edging along, considering tiptoeing across. A normally honest character could be lured into a huge lie. Someone on the straight and narrow might be tempted to shoplift. Given the right stimuli, a peaceful person could be on the edge of punching someone. Push their boundaries.
12. Take their voice away
Whether it’s the tail end of an illness, laryngitis, or a canker sore on their lip, make it difficult for your character to speak. They’ll need to rely on other forms of communication and deal with the frustration that accompanies this struggle. This could be a particularly juicy torment if it coincides with a meeting or get-together they’ve been anticipating for a while.
13. “Let life be like music” (thank you, Langston Hughes)
Choose a song you love and listen to it carefully, picking out the lyrics. If you can’t figure out what they are, or you’re too busy dancing along (it’s a totally legit excuse, okay?), pop over to a website like azlyrics.com. Pick a phrase from the song (or just use the whole darn thing) and spin off a situation or a dialogue exchange for your scene, inspired by the lyrics. (Click here for an example of how versatile song lyrics can be ...) Just make sure you don’t accidentally copy it word for word! Even a few words lifted from a song into the published version of your novel can spell trouble, aka copyright infringement.
14. A spot of dusting
Unless your character hires a housekeeping service, things are going to get messy sometimes. If the scene takes place around the house, sprinkle in some household chores while your character carries on a conversation or mulls something over. Alternatively, your character could organize or declutter part of their home (goodness knows, we all find ourselves doing that sometimes). They could be looking for something specific or simply be tired of the chaos.
What do you think? Which of these ideas will you try today?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Location, location, location! ... and why it matters to your character and Seven Ways to Court Your Muse.