I've just read a tutorial about scenic techniques in novel-writing that recommends that a story should have a rhythm of static scenes and dramatic scenes. Here's an excerpt:

Dramatic scenes are tense and often eventful; something happens – a murder, a car chase, a demand for divorce. But dramatic scenes are not always sensational. They may explore subtle conflict or muted emotion, so that nothing ‘happens’ but everything is highly charged.

Static scenes contain more ordinary and restful moments, the lulls that occur before or after tension. But static scenes are not frozen like paintings. They should never stall the story or just fill in the moments between events. Their function is to provide verisimilitude and tension release.

The gist is that a novel writer should alternate between dramatic and static scenes to protect the wider story from being either too melodramatic or too dull/cosy.

On an intellectual level (and as a reader), this makes sense, but it leaves me unsure about how to write a static scene that still moves a story forward. So there's my question: what are the ways of writing a static scene that provides tension release for the reader but still moves the story forward?

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    In my own story (high fantasy novel) I'm using static scenes mostly to explore the background of the characters or the world, which is either supposed to explain why characters acted in past events or may act in future events in a certain way, unfold a little side story or show the characters' development and relationships. In some scenes I use conversations to explain the reasons for the story's progress, e.g. they captured a witch, who had taken part in a summoning ritual and then she explains her reasons for taking part and how to fight the unfortunate outcome. Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 14:11

4 Answers 4


Most men's hearts are brave in the moment in the firefight. It's the minutes and hours waiting,that's when fear creeps in.
This is the great thing about static scenes. This is where the characters wait for the next thing to happen, but often these moments can be more trying than the action. The conflict here is often internal. Show the characters struggling to go on and do the next difficult thing. Show the stress of the past event catching up to them. Does it eat away at them internally? does the stress impact relationships that worked just fine before the chaos started?

Static scenes let us see that the characters are not buckled in on roller coasters. They are willing participants of the events and their actions are not a just a simple reaction to the world. They are the foundation to build on when the excitement begins.



You are asking about the scene-sequel philosophy of story construction.


Go here.

Scene: Goal/Conflict/Disaster. Sequel: Reaction/Dilemma/Decision.

The 'static' scenes are the sequels, and they move the plot forward because in those parts the main characters are formulating their next decision. The sequels can be short.

There's a good chance you have some sequels in your writing already. These are the sections where the people are talking about what to do next. There are no guns being bandied about, no cars screeching down the road, no blood spurting. Instead, people breathing heavily, re-sheathing the swords, looking around at the mayhem that just happened, and moving on to get to the inn before nightfall.

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    @robertcday I think I may have posted this the other day, but I'm reading Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain which explains this concept in detail. I've started using it too, restructuring my novel so that it alternates between Conflict and Reaction, and I can already feel that it's flowing a lot better. At first I thought it would feel too prescriptive, too structured, but you don't really notice it in the story itself. You just feel the plot moving but don't really know why unless you look at the underlying structure. Highly recommend it as a technique.
    – GGx
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 13:21
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    @robertcday I use Scrivener, which allows me to divide each chapter into separate files, and I assign each file an icon: either an explosion icon for a Goal/Conflict/Disaster chapter or a whirlwind icon for a Reaction/Dilemma/Decision chapter. That way, I can see at a glance what needs to come next in the chapter. My story is still exactly as it was, it's just reorganised a bit so I don't have disaster-disaster-disaster followed by dilemma-dilemma-dilemma (which can create a lull). HTH.
    – GGx
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 13:26

"Conflict" should be present throughout the book on every page, in this sense: the reader wants to know what is about to happen next. Not for the entire book, but they want to read the next three minutes (about three pages) to see something resolved. A "page turner" is precisely that, a weaving of these things that are resolved, but before they are, some other conflict is present, so they need to read some more to resolve that, and so on. The best books we ever read, we read in as close to one sitting as our time allows; because we are constantly looking to resolve the latest conflict, or unknown.

For verisimilitude, we cannot be in an active fight for our lives for more than an hour without rest. (IRL, most physical fights end in a few minutes).

So the battles are interspersed with travel, thinking, planning, and other forms of physical rest, implied (like sleep) or shown (sitting around a campfire listening to stories that subtly impart information about characters or the plot).

But even in these times of rest or play or sex, we can have "conflict" in this sense, the reader wants to see what happens next. "Static" is a very poor choice of words for these scenes; it implies nothing changes. I would think of them as "recovery" scenes, but now the "action" is in the dialogue, arguments, recriminations, sorrow, new plans, grief over losses, the WTF do we do now moments, the resolve to continue and win or die trying. The memories of what was lost, and what we are fighting for. The joy and release of consummating love and the well-being that follows. The decisions made.

For example, when Luke Leaves Hoth after a battle, we have a "recovery" scene in which he makes the decision (At Ben's instruction) to NOT rejoin the Rebel Fleet, but travel instead to Dagobah to train under Yoda. R2D2 objects. There is a conversational conflict and a decision is made that the entire plot for this movie turns upon, separating Luke from the other heroes for a significant amount of time. To me that is hardly "static"; the whole of the "action" may be punching a button to change course and begin this journey, but the audience is left in anticipation. Wondering what happens next, why is this Yoda important, etc.


I find that the scenes used most often and most effectively to break tension and push narrative are "uneventful" travelogues. Using travel as a downtime sequence lets the reader rest from the action but still allows the author some exposition and pushes the plot along into a new setting. Jim Butcher uses this very well in the Dresden Files and it's also used to good effect in the Coyote books and Simon R. Green's Nightside to name a few. The fact that travel can turn dangerous in an instant was well used in both the Nightside and Laundry Files to maintain a little tension so that the plunge back into the action isn't too shocking.

Let me finish by saying that I actually disagree with the basic premise, I think there are a good number of very good stories that don't let the reader rest at all. Such tales move along through a continuous series of active, tense scenes and only rest right at the end, after the climax of the final act. Pick whichever style resonates with you, in my experience writers do better work for themselves than they do with the intent to show an audience.

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