One of the surest ways to write a lifeless scene is to think primarily in terms of the information you need to impart to the reader.
Good scenes in novels are active. They’re centered on characters who are doing something, whether that’s trying to accomplish a goal or even simply trying to figure something out. We become invested in whether the protagonist is going to get what they want, particularly when there are hopes and dreams and clear stakes involved.
When an author is only thinking about What The Reader Needs To Know in a paternalistic way, the resulting scenes tend to feel forced and lifeless. They turn the characters into sock puppets for delivering information and deprive scenes of energy and momentum.
Here are some of the ways imparting information can lead you astray and some advice on what to do instead.
Don’t introduce characters in a static way
One way to write a listless opening to a novel is to “set up” characters, settings, and plot details solely because they will become important later. Often these scenes consist of aimless conversations that introduce a character, or flashbacks that “prove” that the protagonist really loved their departed loved one. The story doesn’t really get going until later on.
These scenes are inevitably stultifying because nothing is actually happening that advances the story. We’re just witnessing banter for the sake of banter or watching an idle scene that’s disconnected from anything the protagonist is trying to accomplish.
Remember: scenes should flow from an active protagonist trying to accomplish something. If you’re reducing them to idle chit chat, the reader is going to be itching to get to the part where things start mattering.
What to do instead: Trust that you can introduce characters when they become important to the story, and consider including a mini-quest that can keep the protagonist active and show their world before the main plot kicks off.
Don’t smush exposition into dialogue
Another consequence of thinking about scenes in terms of information is that it often leads authors to write stilted “info dump via dialogue” scenes where two characters stand around chit chatting about all of the things the author feels the reader needs to know.
Even worse: one character is reduced to asking leading questions that make no sense in the context of the scene solely to give the author an excuse to deliver information.
There are so many problems with this approach. When exposition is smushed into dialogue, it invariably feels forced and unwieldy. It becomes clear to the reader that the conversation is really for their benefit rather than making intrinsic sense within the scene.
The exception: when one character genuinely does not know the information and is actively seeking it out.
What to do instead: Conversations in novels need to be focused and should reflect one or more characters going after things they want. If context is required, simply deliver crisp exposition via the narrative voice or turn a character’s pursuit of information into a scene to give them a more genuine thrill of discovery.
Don’t warp your characters’ desires and actions to fit your plot
The last major consequence of thinking of scenes in terms of information is that it often results in authors warping their characters’ personalities and decisions in order to move them from an author’s predetermined Point A to Point B.
The author has it in mind that they need to “show the reader” certain things or that a future plot point needs to be set up, so the author shoehorns the characters into a course of action that’s inconsistent with their desires and personality.
I’m not personally a fan of the notion some authors indulge that characters are real people who can run away with a novel (you, the author, are still in charge), but authors who think this way are at least onto something. They’re ditching their preconceived ideas about how their novel will unfold based on their characters’ internal logic.
That’s better than forcing a round character into a square hole.
What to do instead: Stay true to your characters’ desires, motivations, and personalities. If your characters’ actions don’t make intrinsic sense within a scene, you may need to go back to the drawing board.
Build scenes around active characters going after the things they want
Authors who conceive of scenes based on the information they need to convey have it precisely backwards.
Information should never be the sole point of a scene. Instead: a character’s desires should be the point of every scene. The character needs to be going after their goals and staying active and prioritizing accordingly. Otherwise, how much could they possibly care about the things they say they want?
Information is just supporting infrastructure. It’s the context we need to understand what’s happening. Sometimes, yes, a character desires information in order to achieve their goals, whether that’s a detective solving a case or a character struggling for a method to survive an unjust world. But the information isn’t the entire point of these scenes. It flows from the desires.
Keep your characters active and be true to their motivations. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to bring the reader up to speed as the actual story unfolds.
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Art: Couple in the Park at Arles by Vincent Van Gogh
waldir Molina Garcia says