Just like in music, dynamics in storytelling are everything. As thrilling and shocking fight scenes can be in your manuscript, too many for too long can exhaust your reader. The key is to layer intense scenes with more relaxed, quiet scenes. Like good lasagna with lots of ingredients and flavors, your story should be baked with a crescendo of different tones all mixing beautifully at once.
Some experts suggest cutting out quiet scenes completely, but I disagree with that wholeheartedly. If you want your story to feel authentic, it should mimic life. And sometimes, life is really boring. So even if your character slays dragons one minute, don’t forget to include their motor registry appointment the next. Even the most intense stories need to feel human. In my experience, readers welcome the chance to relate to the monotony that your characters may be experiencing. Plus, the differing intensities and tones will serve to highlight the action-packed scenes even more. The only possible risk is that your scenes could fall flat if you lack direction while you’re writing. For extra help on tightening up the middle of your story, read my recent article HERE.
Here, I’ll share some ideas for you to write your own quiet scenes that actually contribute to your story.
The Scenic Self-Reflection
Set your character in a setting rich with sensory detail. Maybe it’s a balcony overlooking the ocean while the sun is setting. Or maybe it’s their dark bedroom while the street lamp casts an eerie glow on their desk chair. They can be alone, or speaking with a trusted confidant. It’s a great time for the reader to see inside their head (especially if you’re writing in the first person). Challenge them to think about their struggles, and share them with the reader.
It’s especially fun to sneak in crucial clues during quiet scenes, because your reader won’t expect them. When you reveal the twist later, be sure to call them back to the very moment they were convinced was nothing too important. I’ve found the best way to do this is to highlight something really mundane, like going to the bank, getting lunch, driving home from work, etcetera. The possibilities are endless, and you can rest assured that your dynamic break served a huge purpose.
The Contextual Tension
I’ve also read that experts suggest focusing on what happens both before and after, which I think is super smart. That way, you know that everything is consistent, but also that everything flows together smoothly. But mostly, the tone of the scene will also likely change a lot simply from the events that happen around it. Suddenly, a father-daughter afternoon ice cream run isn’t such a happy occasion after they had a major fight over a new boyfriend vying for her attention. But if you pulled that scene out of the context, you might not know there had been tension, aside from some well-placed body language and subtext. Use this strategically to paint the picture clearly.
The Quiet Gossip
Maybe other characters say something about your protagonist that the reader never would have known about otherwise. Of course, you’ll want to stay consistent with your POV and everything, but this can be a fun way to thicken the plot. Make it tongue-in-cheek, heartbreakingly dramatic, or positively infuriating – the choice is yours. I like to imagine the in-crowd whispering at the “cool” table in a YA book, or maybe the local hens clucking at the beauty parlor of a contemporary women’s fiction novel, with curlers in their hair.
This is also a great way to introduce a circular narrative to your plot. Maybe your character also attacks a particular situation differently in hindsight. Or if you’re like me and you love writing about literal time-travel, maybe they actually go back in time and change things. Regardless of how literal or figurative you are, this particular tactic offers a lot of options. It’s versatile, because you can decide how you want the reader to perceive the events of your book in retrospect. You can also choose how much to reveal, and how much to leave alone. And in the more literal sense, your character might be sitting alone, reflecting. Or, once again, chatting with a friend. Possible settings can be really anything you want that has a relaxed vibe.
The overall lesson about quieter scenes is that they’re worthwhile as long as they still forward your plot. This being said, don’t make everything foreshadow something – that’s when it starts to read like a cheesy soap opera. Unless of course – that’s your genre of choice. But for most stories, let some strings remain untied. Just like life, not everything means something. But as long as you remain conscious and thoughtful of your story, even your quiet scenes will be fantastic.