Several weeks ago, an aspiring writer asked me what my opinion was on “in-between” scenes — scenes where “nothing happened.” She noted that her favorite scenes in books were often ones where characters were only talking about their lives. How did I recommend including these while maintaining pacing?
I have three thoughts on Nothing scenes.
1. Always Be Mindful of Invisible Movement
I don’t believe in Nothing scenes. I believe in scenes that appear as Nothing scenes to the reader, but are actually full of invisible movement. I have a rule for myself — insofar as I do rules — that every scene should be doing at least two things, preferably three or more, no matter how much it appears to be about merely one.
Here are examples of things scenes can do:
• give backstory
• demonstrate character change
• create a sense of place
• satisfy logistics; i.e. move a character from place A to place B
• establish character
• explain world-building
• move through action sequence
• move external plot forward
• establish dynamic between two characters through conversation or action
It can be tempting to grab just one of those and say DONE. SCENE. GOOD. But efficient storytelling, powerful storytelling, involves doing many of these at one time. A scene may appear to be merely about a character crashing his best friend’s car. But it must also be about his character journey and about his dynamic with another character, all the while pushing the external plot forward. Complexly written, but simple to read: ah yes, these scene where Ronan takes the car.
A Nothing scene might overwhelmingly appear to be merely a conversation, but it needs to be doing heavy lifting in the places between words. Work in place, backstory, character motivation. Let the unspoken seethe in between the spoken. Subtly tie the conversation to the external plot. Why is the conversation happening now? Make sure it references the steps that came before it to make it seem inevitable instead of like an element that can merely lift out and be placed elsewhere without consequence.
What you’re attempting to do is maintain invisible movement. Remind the reader of what is still lurking during this quiet moment. Or remind them that this is the stake: that this quiet moment is what the characters are fighting for. Or situate the quiet moment within a larger, external plot machination, and end the conversation by wrenching them externally according to the plot.
But don’t just let them talk. You can at first. Draft it that way. Be delighted by the quiet conversation you’ve written. But then get back to work. You ain’t done. Push things forward invisibly by having the scene do something else in the background.
2. Earn It
You’ve got to earn all frothy conversations or quiet moments in two ways. First is the rhythm of the thing. It’s like a mix tape. Don’t group all the quiet stuff together, dude! Tense action scenes seem more speedy when interspersed with quiet moments, and vice versa. Earn your quiet moment by putting us through our paces for a bit first.
Second: you’ve got to emotionally earn your quiet moments, your Nothing conversations. You may have been daydreaming of the moment your two characters finally open up and reveal their deepest truths through memes, but if you do it too soon, the scene will feel empty . . . and slow. Like just a Nothing scene.
An emotional conversation should be a reveal, a satisfying culmination of something half-seen until that moment. Timed correctly, far enough along in the emotional journeys, these conversations will feel like a resting place or a reward instead of a lull.
3. You Can’t Live on Ice Cream Cake, or You Ruin Ice Cream Cake
There’s a reason why a lot of readers think they love Nothing scenes — they mean the scenes mentioned above, quietly emotional scenes placed well within the narrative. They feel amazing! But the chemical make up of these scenes mean that they only work when used sparingly. It’s not the quietness of them that makes them incredible. It’s what had to happen to make the quietness possible. Ice cream cake is special because it’s a rarity, brought out only for special occasions. The same goes for all pleasurable excesses in novel-making: banter, kissing, action sequences, emotional porn. They all need to be used sparingly, and to be placed as a result of story, not instead of it, or you’ll find yourself with a Nothing novel, because ice cream cake for every meal makes it lose its meaning.
The thing to remember about novel writing is that the key to pacing is tension, and tension doesn’t always come from negative consequences. Positive consequences can work just as well (think of it: love stories, exploration narratives, training sequences). Make sure your Nothing scenes maintain invisible movement by continuing to promise some kind of tension, and you’re golden.
Oh yeah, and most important? Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t pull it off in a first draft of a scene. Just because you have to end up with a hard-working scene doesn’t mean you have to be able to juggle all those layers at once. Writing is revision, revision is writing, etc. etc. etc.