How to Write a Bland Scene

There’s nothing quite like chatting, happy characters to throw a bucket of ice on your story’s momentum. Let’s take an example of weak dialogue I just composed.

“Hello,” said Jim walking into Brenda’s office with a smile and a sheaf of paper, “I’ve just finished my dissertation!”

“That’s great,” said Brenda, rising from her desk, “I knew you could do it! Are you going to present soon?”

“Two weeks,” said Jim, sighing and looking remote, “two weeks is all the time I have.” He might as well have said two weeks is all the time I have left to live.

“You’ll do fine,” said Brenda touching his arm. “I know. It’s the stage-fright thing, right? But you can do it. I’ll help you.”

“I suppose so,” said Jim, “I know with your help, I’ll make out alright. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Aside from the rather bland characters, the main error of this dialogue is that everything’s hunky dory. The reader has no sense of dread or foreboding. There isn’t much at stake. Jim has a vague sense of anxiety; maybe he will fail his presentation. A reader can only take so much of this kind of scene before he or she puts down the book and looks for something else.

But what if Brenda is Jim’s mother, and what if, instead of slathering him with syrupy moral support, she disparaged each and every word to leave his mouth, and Jim – bursting with frustration at yet another attempt to win the love and respect he has sought all his life – finally snaps. Sound more interesting?

How to Write a Rich Scene

The truth is that the kind of happy dialogue above works only in situations where both characters are unknowingly about to be devoured by monsters. Without tension a scene wilts like a flower without water. So now let’s go to a famous scene in literature, the first scene of “Master and Commander.” Spoiler alert: this is a great scene, and I’m citing its highlights. Instead of reading my article, you should just read the book.

This story is an epic spanning 20 books that chronicle the intimate friendship between the physician Stephen Maturin, and the British naval officer Jack Aubrey. The first scene of the first book is their first encounter. The two sit next to each other at a concert. Jack Aubrey is rapt, beating his fist against his knee with the music, and when the movement finishes:

“He leant back in his chair, extinguishing it entirely, sighed happily and turned towards his neighbour with a smile. The words ‘very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.”

The scene continues, with Jack now unable to concentrate on the music, thinking to himself “The ill-looking son of a bitch, to give himself such airs.” Then, later in the scene after being swept back into the spirit of the music, Jack Aubrey faces another affront from the ill-looking son of a bitch.

“… as the ‘cello came in with its predictable and necessary contribution of pom, pom-pom-pom, poom, Jack’s chin sank upon his breast and in unison with the ‘cello he went pom, pom-pom-pom, poom. An elbow drove into his ribs and the sound shshsh hissed in his ear.”

As this intriguing battle of personalities unfolds, two characters are emerging. One maa, gregarious, passionate and seemingly good-natured: good-natured that is, until assaulted for his overflowing spirit by a man beside him who might be his polar opposite. They part with formal civility, but on the most hostile terms:

“Jack Aubrey and his neighbour in the rusty black coat stood up at the same time, and they looked at one another: Jack let his face return to its expression of cold dislike … and in a low voice he said, ‘My name is Aubrey, sir: I am staying at the Crown.’

‘Mine, sir, is Maturin. I am to be found any morning at Joselito’s coffee-house. May I beg you to stand aside?”

For a moment Jack felt the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it; but he gave way with a tolerable show of civility – he had no choice, unless he was to be run into…”

And so two best friends are met, thereafter to fill 20 books with their idiosyncratic harmony, two nodes of the sharpest historical literature ever produced.

Though it is counter-intuitive that such an encounter should become a friendship, consider that there is at least a shared interest in the music. The conflict does an impressive job at introducing these pivotal characters and showing how truly unique each one is; it is also the conflict that makes the interaction between them unforgettable. Of course, to get a full understanding of how excellent this scene really is, you’re going to have to read “Master and Commander.” And that, my dear readers, is something you will truly thank me for facilitating.

short story writing book

Back when I first began to learn the craft of writing, I knew next to nothing about what a story should look like. I had only the vague knowledge gleaned from the few dozen novels I had read. When I began writing, I lost my motivation because I could see I did not know how.

I started to learn how when I borrowed this book, “The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing: Volume II” from the public library, and I began taking notes. Every article, from “Getting Ideas,” by Robert Cormier, to “The Finer Points of Characterization,” by Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game fame), to “Trouble-Free Transitions” by Jean Z. Owen, represents a piece of an intellectual toolkit that anticipates nearly all the challenges of creative writing.

Every single article inspired me to sit and read. A great aspect of the book is how short the articles are, no one exceeding a dozen pages or so, and many of them only a few pages long. I sat for hours at the library taking notes. 

This is one of many resources I think are a must have, and so I encourage you to go to amazon now and get it from one of the sellers for what’s bound to be a very small price.

 

Concise Advice

 

This book is written by writers. Hence there is little padding. Every sentence and paragraph are there for a purpose, conveying multiple lessons per page with aphorismic brevity. Consider this passage from the first article, “Mastering the Short Story,” by Paul Darcy Boles:

“Meaning in a story is not injected with a hypodermic needle, but issues from it after it has been written. It’s highly doubtful that Aesop ever said to himself, “now I shall produce a profound fable upon the subject of Envy, and I think I’ll call this one ‘The Fox and the Grapes.'” Meaning lurks inside a story, between the lines; it is not always completely clear to the writer while the story is being written, or for that matter afterward.”

Boles then uses some of his own writing and editing to explain how he went from 24 pages to 10 in a short story, citing one example where a 50-word description was replaced with 9 words. And he offers his insights on writing “…just sufficient words to allow the reader to participate wholly in the experience.” Rather than indulging in a frivolous literary navel-gazing while the reader’s eyes glaze over.

Just Buy it

I could go on. There are an incredible array of transformative insights in this book. It’s a great book to pick up and open to any article you might happen to find. Every single one is extremely relevant. It’s an easy book to find for a decent price on Amazon (there are only second-hand copies), and if this edition is any reflection on the quality of its predecessor (vol. I), I am sure both books are a worthy investment.

If you’re an aspiring novelist, if you have a vague sense that you need to learn more about writing, and if you’re okay with starting small, look no further. This is your guidebook.

 

The Shining is an iconic horror movie. So much so, that simple pop culture references to it from shows like The Simpsons were enough to give my high school girlfriend a panic attack. But behind that daunting Kubrick monument is the even more gripping book by Stephen King.

The novel “The Shining,” traps the reader’s attention right from the beginning. With an eye to how it establishes character, sets up the plot and makes use of masterfully-written dialogue, it is easy to see why this particular first chapter is outstanding.

Character

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” That’s the first line. And for the whole of the first chapter, the collected, yet apparently ill-tempered main character sits through a demeaning job interview with the officious little prick, Stuart Ullman. Ullman is the manager of the Overlook hotel, built in the middle of nowhere, and he needs a winter caretaker who can buttress the ancient structure against the fierce winters. He is self-righteous, babbling, condescending, and he has no trouble digging up Jack’s history of anger, citing an incident where Jack “lost his temper,” and subsequently his last job as a teacher and debating team coach.

The genius of the writing in this first scene is what the tense dialogue between these incompatible characters tells the reader. Through it all, Jack keeps putting on his “PR smile,” while beneath the surface he smolders. Ullman is in fact simply performing his due diligence with a prospective employee, one whom he does not want to hire. The tension that ensues makes King’s writing irresistible.

Consider this excerpt of the manager explaining the failure of the last caretaker, Delbert Grady:

 

“I made a mistake. I admit it freely. The man was a drunk.”
Jack felt a slow, hot grin—the total antithesis of the toothy PR grin—stretch across his mouth. “Is that it? I’m surprised Al didn’t tell you. I’ve retired.”
“Yes, Mr. Shockley told me you no longer drink. He also told me about your last job… your last position of trust, shall we say? You were teaching English in a Vermont prep school. You lost your temper, I don’t believe I need to be any more specific than that…”

By the time this dialogue happens, Jack is already worked up. The manager is only hiring jack because he is obliged to by Jack’s friend Al Shockley, an influential Overlook board member.

…He wants you hired. I will do so. But if I had been given a free hand in this matter, I would not have taken you on.”
Jack’s hands were clenched tightly in his lap, working against each other, sweating. Officious little prick, officious little prick, officious—“

The pressure is building. Quite unlike the man portrayed in the movie by Jack Nicholson, Jack Torrance is at least reasonable. However, there is a fire in him. He’s a man at war with himself. Maybe he’s losing that war. Maybe Stuart Ulmann is right.

Plot

As much as this first chapter reveals about Jack Torrance’s character, it also introduces the plot with particular eloquence . It is said that the best way to introduce a story is to perch your characters on the very precipice of peril and allow the narrative to follow from there. The dialogue in the first chapter does so indirectly but with dramatic effectiveness, setting up a sense of impending doom that every subsequent chapter builds upon like a steam engine conductor heaping on the coal.

After some strained dialogue concerning cabin fever and isolation, the Overlook manager finally makes his point regarding Grady, whom, as we learn in the first chapter, occupied the same quarters in the old hotel that Jack and his family will soon occupy:

 

“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”

Ullman closes the conversation shortly thereafter, expressing his desire for a different sort of person to take the job that Jack has been chosen for, and absolving himself of responsibility for anything dreadfully tragic that might happen as the result of Jack’s appointment. The first chapter then closes with a narrative hook that demands inclusion in this commentary for its perfect summary of all that has just transpired.

 

“I hope there are no hard feelings, Mr. Torrance. There is nothing personal in the things I have said to you. I only want what’s best for the Overlook. It is a great hotel. I want it to stay that way.”

“No. No hard feelings.” Jack flashed the PR grin again, but he was glad Ullman didn’t offer to shake hands. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them.

If you haven’t read The Shining, my bet is that there is enough interesting content in this simple instructional article to make you interested in the rest of the story. All I have done is chosen some poignant moments from the first chapter, the opening sentence and the closing hook. But I bet it’s been enough to make you want to pick up the book. 

It’s so compelling because of the tension, the ill-portent, and a character who – in spite of his good intensions – seems to be in an emotional pressure cooker of his own construction, not to mention the dialogue. One character, the manager, cloyingly voluble, self-important, the other, the failing author, reticent except when the opportunity for contradiction or victory arise. There are enough hints of tragedy to make the reader very concerned about what’s going to happen next.