3 Quick Tips to Pump Up the Punch in Your Scenes

I've spent nearly a week wondering why I couldn't move forward and complete the scene I've been writing. Until suddenly, the proverbial light bulb flashed and I realized the root problem. I'd been wimping out.

Wimping out happens when you shy away from a scene with real emotional impact and rob the story (and by extension, yourself) of an opportunity to connect with the reader at a visceral level.

Here are some warning signs that you may have wimped out when writing a scene and some tips to pump up the punch:

1. You've put the most powerful, memorable lines in the mouths of a secondary or throwaway character rather than allowing your protagonist to star.

Possible solutions: Is there a way to give your protagonist a terrific comeback, wry or insightful observation, or show him/her driving the events/outcome? Readers love an active character with impact in his/her own life rather than a "dust mote" buffeted by every breeze.

2. You've failed to show a crucial turning point by "cleverly" alluding to it in subsequent scenes. Or maybe you have a character remember or flash back to a strong scene, especially one the reader was anticipating.

Possible solutions: Rewrite the power scene in the "real time" of the story to avoid distancing the reader from the action and emotion. (I swear, I have to relearn this particular lesson with each book!)

3. You're stalling on the tough stuff by writing scenes detailing the characters' routine activities.

Possible solutions: Try a "jump cut," leaping into the next power scene, then very briefly alluding to the critical details that made it happen (a bread crumb trail of necessary backstory.) In other words, as Elmore Leonard advises, "I just leave out the stuff that people don't read anyway." Same goes for boring, routine "how are you/I am fine" type dialogue. Kill it before it breeds a boring, routine and ultimately unreadable manuscript.

Do you ever find yourself using any of these techniques to avoid writing an emotional scene? Do you have any additional solutions to add to my list?


Anonymous said…
Great insight, Colleen!

Anonymous said…
...an opportunity to connect with the reader at a visceral level.
Third time this week I've read about this. Hmmm...Guess what I'll be working on this weekend??

Thanks, Colleen !
Suzan Harden said…
All hail, the Jedi Master!
Excellent tips, Colleen.

I also needed to hear about connecting viscerally with the reader. Again.
Jessica Trapp said…
Thanks, Colleen. :)
Thanks to everyone who's stopped by.

And I don't know about the Jedi Master part, Suzan, but some days I feel as old as Yoda! :)

Or should that be (enunciating in creaky voice): Old as Yoda I feel?
Nancy J. Parra said…
Oooh, great post- thanks!
I especially suffer from #2, but I don't think it's always because I'm trying to avoid dealing with the tough stuff. I think sometimes we write through a first draft without being sure exactly how the scenes will fall, and then later realize "oh, that scene I summarized really should be on the page." I see my students do it too, and sometimes I think it's emotional and sometimes not.

I'm curious, though. When writing a highly emotionally charged novel about a subject that can be very dark, how do you go about breaking up that darkness so the reader can handle it? That's probably my biggest challenge right now. I want to keep building the tension, but one of the comments I got during the defense was that every scene was tight and tense, to the point where there was no breath. I've tried breaking it up with humor, but for some reason my usually humorous voice doesn't come through as much here, and I definitely don't want to force it.

Any ideas?
Hi, Katherine,
As someone who specializes in scary and tense and tries to keep the pacing fast, I know exactly what you mean about needing to place "breathers" after particularly dark scenes. Humor can work, especially in the form of wry or darkly-sarcastic/witty observations - but only if it's right for a particular character. What I try to do it shift into a "recovery" sequel, which has tension of its own, but of a different type. The "recovery/healing" scene often has a sweetness and hopefulness to it, in terms of the growing emotional intimacy between two characters made vulnerable by the dark events. People let their guard down after their usual barriers are weakened, and the act of reaching out to another - maybe a person with whom the character's had problems - is eminently optimistic and eminently human. I might also use the natural world in some form to connect the character to (for example) the environment/season and move him/her toward a decision to dig deep, find a reservoir of strength, and press on.

Stories without sequels (I mean that in the scene and sequel sense rather than the next episode way) to break up heavy action and darkness can "wear out" the reader and ultimately feel shallow. Readers want a chance to see the protagonists incorporate and cope with the stresses of their journey. They want to celebrate the resilience of the characters, and by extension, all human beings.

I hope that helps a little. I think I've just written another blog post. ;)
Thanks, Colleen. Actually, that makes me feel a lot better, because I already HAVE several recovery scenes. I think my problem is that I'm chunking too much. (Too many tense scenes back to back and then vice-versa) I have to think about the rise and fall of each scene more and then figure out how all the threads are interspersing together. I think it's really more a question of pacing than anything else. Maybe it's time to go back to the index cards . . .
Donna Maloy said…
I believe the same sort of thinking should go into choosing POV. I was planning to write a book whose main character has to deal with an awful, awful tragedy happening to his best fried. Fortunately I had an eye-opener moment when I realized the real story was the friend's. It's going to be tough to stay in his mind for all the awful times, but ultimately more rewarding for the reader.
Tambra said…

Thanks for the great tips! It seems I catch myself doing something and I cringe. The thought being, "Didn't I do this the last time?"

Thanks again!
You probably have the right ingredients but maybe need to look at your order. Hope the notecards help!

You're right about viewpoint characters. The heroine I initially envisioned for the new WIP turned out to be less interesting and conflicted than her sister. So I demoted heroine A to a secondary character and promoted the person in the tightest spot. Problem: I have NO idea how to get her out of it.

It may take 400 pages to figure it out. My favorite kind of book.

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