In the ever swinging tone of a novel, one may wish to show a moment of peace amidst all the chaos. In my novel it happens a few times, most notably when characters are travelling across vast natural landscapes, or when they gaze at the stars at night.

Quite often, during a revision, I mark all these passages for deletion. I find them dull, and not particularly engaging. I wished to convey peace and show a moment in which characters let go of the struggle, but instead I find myself skipping over paragraphs of someone dozing off while contemplating the beauty of nature.

To give an example from a much more renowned author, my passages could be considered uglier versions of

The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest, which we have mentioned in the beginning of the chapter. Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copsewood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas, in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of silvan solitude.

[from Ivanohe]

I think that these passages might have worked in the past, but for today's literature they are not engaging enough. They look like they serve no purpose, they introduce no themes to the story, nor to the plot, and they could be mistaken as artsy info-dumps on the setting, with the drawback that the characters are not going to engage with these particular elements of the setting.

On the other hand, the goal of the passage is to break the fast-paced tone of the narration, shift the viewpoint, and give the reader a moment to breathe. Ideally it should come across as a short pause in the narration, rather than a 'ok, what's the trick with this description?' passage.

How can I reach the goal while making these passages more intriguing and engaging for the reader?

  • Out of interest, have you tried narrating / "telling" the peace instead of "showing" it? May 3, 2020 at 12:25

5 Answers 5


You seem to suggest that a paragraph that has no other function whatsoever within the narrative, beyond providing an evocative pause, is somehow special, or maybe even "pure".

Of course, such a paragraph already serves a function within the pace of the narrative, by providing the pause. Perhaps you want just such a pause: evocative, but not advancing character arcs or plot in any way. I think this is fine, conceptually. Practically, if the reader is sufficiently engaged, and the pause is well placed, there will be enough forward momentum for the reader to keep going, while even enjoying the well-timed respite.

Indeed, I think that such a pause can be effective in a scene-sequel structure, especially if the reader needs time to process what came before in the story. Even if the text providing the pause does not itself promote the plot or character arcs, it's possible that something huge has just happened, and the reader needs a break from even more important things occurring in order to subconsciously get to grips with the latest events.

However, I would like to question the value of stripping some text of other possible narrative function. Why not introduce a new scene, or in some other way advance your worldbuilding, during such a descriptive section? Why not provide subtle characterisation, by colouring your description with the main character's point of view?

It's fair to identify some goals for such text, e.g.: be evocative; provide a pause in the pace of the narrative; don't prompt the reader to look for hidden gotchas such as plot twist foreshadowing, or the previous two goals will be subverted. That's fine, and now we've excluded e.g. plot twists from using information provided in this text--but we can still do other things, e.g. the subtle characterisation mentioned above.

An example of how to achieve such characterisation would be contrast. So, for instance, the main character has suffered a major setback just previously. Now, we provide an evocative, beautiful description of some natural scene, but the elements of the scene that remind the character of her loss make her melancholy, and this emotion is reflected (although not explained) in the description (e.g. through our choice of descriptive metaphor, not by telling how the character feels). Perhaps these emotions themselves have an arc to them, e.g. perhaps they are ameliorated, as the character processes her loss (again, we don't explain that this is happening; rather, we show how the main character copes with adversity, through the variation in how she reacts sadly to a beautiful scene).

I think that by giving the "evocative pause" text additional, subtle function, you will also make it more engaging, because the reader's mind continues to actively receive information at multiple levels, even if obvious "excitement" such as major plot progress remains missing.


Take a look at The Lord of the Rings as an example. Between the tense episode in Moria, that culminated with Gandalf's fall while the other characters escape, and the mounting tension of the Anduin which culminates with Boromir's death and the breaking of the Fellowship, there's not a passage, but three whole chapters of peace in Lothlorien. Those chapters serve just the function you describe: they offer a change of pace, a time to relax before the next tense bit. So how comes those chapters aren't boring?

While there is little danger in those chapters, you could hardly say that nothing happens. In fact, the characters encounter a whole new place and new people. There are conflicts, albeit comparatively minor ones. There are important revelations. There's mourning for a fallen friend and leader. The lull in the pacing allows for exploration of the relationships between characters, and of the characters' inner worlds. This, I believe, is the answer: the fact that there's no danger, doesn't mean nothing is happening.

You say you want your characters to lie back and look at the stars. Great. Why don't they talk, while they're at it? Maybe one of the characters knows some tale about a constellation - a tale that ties in into some worldbuilding or plot element? Maybe characters coming from different places call the same star by different names, so they compare those? Maybe what they actually talk about is how their journey should proceed, or what they plan to do after it's all over? A description of nature, on it's own, if it doesn't lead to something, just isn't enough.


You could momentarily change the tone.

While not from the written word, the film 28 Days Later features a scene where the main characters encounter a grocery store that had not been looted, and the music lightens, the color brightens, and what would otherwise be a non-event becomes an interlude that shows just how strange their world has become, how something as mundane as grocery shopping has become a source of joy or lightheartedness. There's very little dialog, but there is a momentary massive shift in the feel of the film, and it even ends with a technicolor shot of their car driving across a wide-open space.

EDIT: I would try to achieve this by using contrast in theme and tone. If you're writing a spy thriller and your character is trying to wrap his brain around the arcane geopolitical machinations, traveling through exotic places, and dealing with his and others' troubled histories, pull your character back to a familiar idea, a domestic setting, a peaceful camaraderie -- he's in a bazaar in some far flung land, trying to understand the intrigue around them; now he's in a American safehouse, with (seemingly?) familiar smells, colors, food, decor, people, and you can stop to describe these things' salient features as they compare or contrast to the character(s)' situation, in greater detail, since you're no longer moving at a fast pace that rules out such description. Just an idea.

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    Aug 28, 2019 at 19:31
  • I think this is exactly the effect OP is trying to achieve in a written medium. How would you do that? Aug 28, 2019 at 19:34

Sigh. Must agree with Galastel, again!

You need tension, just a different kind of tension, or conflict. Even friendly disagreement, filled with laughter, represents tension. The laughter (or mourning) can be cathartic for the characters.

Times of safety are times of contemplation that can lead to change in characters. A battle is too fraught a time to come to some new fundamental understanding of one's self, or the world, or the war you are in. Lying on your back, in the dark, feeling safe and contemplative, looking at the stars, is the time to talk about such things.

You want to portray a peaceful interlude. Following the adage "show don't tell", show us characters doing whatever they do when they are at peace. Do they read? Party? Drink and joke around? Sleep on the hillside? Play games? Gamble? Show us what peace is like.

Describing a landscape is one thing, but don't depend on the reader to infer from your description what it feels like. The landscape should be filtered through the eyes of characters, how it makes them feel, what it makes them long for, or remember, or want to tell other characters about.

"That one there," Fergus said, pointing. "Used to have an oak, just like that one, when I was a kid. Dad hung a swing on it. We built a fort in it, Mum even made me a flag. I wonder if it's still up there."

"I can't believe you were a kid," Brin said, and Fergus laughed.

Show us your characters at peace, don't just put them to sleep in a field.


I'd recommend adding some element to advance the plot in your scene, as a lot of others already mentioned. There are so many ways. The characters can discover a new bit of crucial information, there can be tension and doubt in their relationship throughout, maybe their food runs out. There are endless possibilities, all of which have one thing in common - tension. Conflict is what drives the story and what causes me to care about your characters. If there is none of that, then there's nothing to keep me reading. (I'm not sure that care for the characters is enough for anyone but you. Definitely not for too long...) The snowflake method for writing novels has a concept that seems similar to what you're looking for. In it there are scenes and there are sequels. Simply put, a scene is when all the action takes place and a sequel is when the characters calm down or process what happened or, the "peaceful" moments. They are not lacking tension, they're just slower on the action than the other scenes and the conflict is more internal, instead of external (though, it can also be external) I'd suggest you look into the snowflake method. It might help your scenes go from boring and not helpful to the plot, to becoming a crucial part of your novel that you can't believe you'd done without. advancedfictionwriting is a great website with information on the subject, as a starting point.

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