Particularly when you’ve reached the messy middle of writing a novel, it can feel like you are keeping a bunch of plates spinning while balanced on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to keep your whole novel in your head and keep things making sense as you careen toward the climax.
As a result, sometimes writers can be a bit linear as they think about what happens next. They might know they need to get a character from Point A to Point B, impart some information, introduce a new character… essentially some box that needs to be ticked. So they build a whole scene to push that one thing forward.
But don’t stop there. Think about how you can push multiple elements forward to make scenes feel more lively, enriched, and unexpected.
I’m working on a new middle grade novel at the moment, and I knew the protagonist needs to try to retrieve an important item, and I also needed to introduce the character who will become his best friend. So I combined the two moments. The protagonist meets his sidekick in the course of retrieving the item, and they have to work together to escape.
The resulting scene is a whole lot more fun than if I had kept the two scenes separated. The different moments intersect and play off of each other in a much livelier way.
This isn’t universally applicable advice, and sometimes you’ll need to slow down to focus on just one thing. But those quieter scenes also tend to benefit from the more complicated scenes around them, which create a more pronounced sense of stillness.
Personally, I’d err on the side of making “one thing” chapters the exception and “multiple things” the rule, particularly if you’re writing genre fiction.
How to keep the plates spinning
It can be incredibly difficult to stay on top of all the different plot lines in your novel, particularly when you’re about 50-75% in. You’ll start to feel the temptation of working in atomized, simple plot chunks.
This is why I really believe in utilizing a plot framework, which can help you “get above it” and see how different plot threads can potentially intersect.
I put all my major characters and plot lines into a spreadsheet, where I can track their development over the course of the novel. When I see different threads that can be combined into one scene, I do it.
And sometimes this means just pushing past your initial ideas for scenes. As I’m envisioning a chapter, I ask myself a simple question: “What else can this chapter do?”
For those of you who are pantsers and don’t outline in advance, I’d highly recommend creating a retroactive outline once you have a draft, which can help you spot some of these places where combining and condensing will result in richer scenes.
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Art: The Rope Dance by Léonard Defrance
David Jace says
This is something I’ve been actively working on recently. And it really does feel like magic when the scenes are accomplishing multiple things! I used a spreadsheet long ago, but in the last year, I’ve been using Plottr to plan out my novels, and it’s been great. I highly recommend it! (I do not work for, or date, anyone involved with Plottr.)
kim martin says
I do have one question on dialogue. How do you indicate when your character is thinking something? Do you put the text in italics?
Nathan Bransford says
It depends on the perspective, and there aren’t universal guidelines. Typically you italicize only when you’re changing the tense, e.g. if it’s third person past and the protagonist thinks “What do I do now?,” you’d italicize that because it’s delineating that line as a thought in the moment. Otherwise, you usually can just show a character’s thoughts as part of the narrative voice.
Beth Schmelzer says
I am pleased to hear you are writing MG fiction. Many of my scenes have long internal dialogue with my tween protagonist who is trying to discover a family secret is cousin is keeping from him. Anxiety and loneliness keep him in an emotional state of uncertainty. Any advice besides this excellent post on livening scenes by combining elements?
Nathan Bransford says
Make sure you characters are *doing* something! Rather than everyone standing around talking or thinking, put the characters in action, where more things can happen than everyone just chitchatting.