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I mostly write fantasy, and I need to improve writing scenes between characters that are not action. For example, a scene where two characters are eating breakfast and talking about training later that day.

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    First you've got to ask yourself why your readers want or need to know about your characters eating breakfast. Is it the food? Is it the environment? Do you need to tell your readers something about the training session? Each scene should server a purpose. What's the purpose of this scene?
    – JRE
    Sep 26, 2022 at 15:42
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    Phase 0 of Learning to Write: worldbuilding, genre, imitation. Phase 1 of Learning to Write: plot, action, stuff that happened. Phase 2 of Learning to Write: character development, arcs, motives. Phase 3 of Learning to Write: subtext, theme, foreshadowing, consequences.... Sounds like you may be transitioning between Phase 2 and 3. Suggest looking up Robert Mckee's "Do your scenes turn"
    – wetcircuit
    Sep 26, 2022 at 15:47
  • A scene about 'eating breakfast' needs to be about more than just the physical act of eating breakfast.
    – wetcircuit
    Sep 26, 2022 at 15:53

5 Answers 5

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I'd adopt a trick from the movie industry.

The more cerebral the conversation, the more outlandish the setting. Two characters on the run can convey "information" that could have been conveyed in a quiet coffee shop, but instead is conveyed in the middle of a loud gay pride parade, shouting at each other to be heard, or while they are on the run at 100 mph, or doing some derring do to break into a high security building, or trying to execute an emergency landing on a much too short improvised air strip.

None of this has to actually have much bearing on the plot itself, it is just a distraction. Once you start looking for this trick, it appears again and again.

Convey your background or plot-important information while there is something else going on, while your characters are distracted by that.

An agent told me once, never write the "sitting on the bus" opening, or scene. She meant, a character sitting on the bus for 15 minutes thinking about their history and life and situation.

The same goes for your "coffee shop" scene; or any "talking heads" scene, don't write it. At least have them actively doing something while they have that conversation. It doesn't have to be important to the plot, but changing scenery, minor difficulties navigating the world, whatever, ensure things are happening and changing and the reader imagines this while this information is being conveyed.

That can take some creativity, but that is the job of the writer; figuring out something interesting for these people to be doing while they have a conversation.

Yes it is easier in movies, but when you write a novel, the reader is imagining a movie in their head. You just have to also provide the visual and auditory (and temperature, wind, etc) environment. The movie can provide a rich and interesting environment effortlessly, but novelists cannot.

But reader imagination fades without frequent prodding. So if you fail to do this, if your environment is static (like a coffee shop), the reader's visual imagination fades and they get bored. That's why you never open with it, and that's why you avoid writing scenes with static environments as much as possible.

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    "At least have them actively doing something while they have that conversation..." Reminds me of Aaron Sorkin's walk and talks
    – BruceWayne
    Sep 28, 2022 at 16:17
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You need to think of your scenes in terms of content rather than action. Action is a type of content, as is dialogue, or internal thoughts. The content of the scene is the reason it is being shown to the audience. You can either show your content in detail or summarize it quickly depending on how important the details are for the story as a whole, or for evoking a desired effect on the reader.

If the content of a scene is action or place oriented then using a lot of sensory detail is great for reader immersion. Taking the time to explain all the specific sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations draws the reader deeply into a scene. Describing a fantastical location in this way allows the reader to experience it as if they were there, and describing an action sequences in this way can help the reader feel the excitement, terror, and exhilaration of the characters in those moments. So what about conversations?

Conversations can be meaningful, or non-meaningful. A meaningful conversation is one that advances the reader's understanding of the plot, setting, characters, or any combination of these. In other words, a meaningful conversation is one that provides useful context to the rest of the story. A scene where the primary focus is a meaningful conversation does not really require meaningful action, too. It only requires window dressing to ground the conversation in a specific time and place within the story.

Sensory details aren't necessarily useless in such a scene, it's just about what you want the reader to focus on. Their attention will be drawn to wherever you put the most detail and emphasis. If the details of the scene's immediate setting and actions are sparse while the dialogue is lengthy, they're more likely to follow the dialogue closely, particularly if it's full of new, interesting information. If you think it's important that the reader see specific actions in detail, or if you just really want to describe the food (as is the wont of a few well-known fantasy authors) then feel free. Just always have in mind what sort of content you're putting in your scenes, and what information is being focused on.

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Stakes

The basic flow of a scene is:

  1. Someone wants something
  2. Something prevents them from getting it
  3. They take some kind of risk to try to get what they want
  4. Consequences

This is normally short-handed as "The Stakes" of the scene when we discuss it.

If the scene in question does not have Stakes, you should cut it!

Example

If the two characters are talking about training solely as a way for the author to provide exposition, then this is a weak scene, and it should be cut out entirely.

But if the two characters are talking about training so that Character A can convince Character B to [Do Something], then this is a scene with stakes.

The "risk" Character A takes is the argument they choose. (Maybe they go with flattery, when just lying would have been a better choice. That's a risk!)

The consequences are success or failure in convincing Character B. There might be other consequences as well: maybe Char A is so bad at convincing them, that Char B has moved from "neutral" to "antagonistic!" Or maybe Char A was so persuasive that Char B will provide more help than requested.

Physicality

When A is trying to convince B (or lie to them, or bully them, or whatever), A should be watching to see if their argument is working. They should be reading body language, and changing their approach based on that non-verbal feedback.

You as the author should describe this body language and what Char A thinks it means.

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Remember that dialog doesn't take place in a vacuum and the conversation is to show the means by which characters receive knowledge. If they are having breakfast, think about what is going on during breakfast. Are we in a diner or equivalent? Does the hero know what they want? Does the mentor? Does he have experience with Breakfast in this part of the world? Is he confused? When he orders does the waitress give a string of words to the short order cook that sounds nothing like what you ordered (" Three oinkers wearing pants, plate of hot air, basket of Grandma's breakfast, and change the bull to a gill")?

If it's in a home, what are people doing? Who is clearly the morning person? Who is the person who shouldn't be dealing with this until coffee? Are there any pets? Is there any weirdness going on? Is the weirdo of the party declaring a quest to find every prize listed in the cereal box? Is the person who has little understanding of human culture baffled by the mix of marshmallows and cereal? Do they approve (The proud manly warrior thinks it is a feast worthy of songs of greatness! This pisses off the Leprechaun, who hates that his people are stereotyped as liking such a rancid mixture.).

Oh, and above all, the conversation that you're trying to have. About training... Breakfasts are often vary chaotic meals because everyone wakes up differently and are trying to get something to eat before the days work begins and different people are in different states of "getting ready for the day" (As a kid, my parents would make me eat first, as I had a temper if I did not eat soon. Which meant I was groggy while I ate and not one for conversation... one time I was half awake and eating cereal and my father (who was leaving for work when the kids would get up) asked me to let the dog out. I responded with "I love you too, Dad." In a manner that was akin to a programed response.).

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I don't believe there is such a thing as a well-written scene that lacks action. If it lacked action, by definition it's not a scene. "Action" can mean physical action, or it can mean mental action. Both kinds of action involve a conflict of wills, which (in western culture) is the essence of drama. The only difference is how the action becomes manifest.

If the scene involves two people (e.g., a married couple) at a table eating a meal, they need eventually to be arguing about something. "Mental action" in this context requires some sort of disagreement between the two; a disagreement that seeks resolution at some later point in the story, in another scene.

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