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, but the possibility of minor humiliation doesn’t exactly hook ones attention. 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, 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 man 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 the alternative: what if Maturin had been as affable and friendly as Aubrey, and said things like ‘Sure, very finely played indeed’? Most if not all of the scene’s power would be undermined. The conflict plays a critical role in 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.

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