When writers talk of plot, we often talk of action–characters doing things with dialogue and thoughts from at least one character. But every book benefits from a few quiet scenes. Even in a thriller, the characters need some less frantic moments to digest what’s happening to them. I define a quiet scene as one in which dialogue or thoughts are the elements that drive the scene. But how to write effective quiet scenes without boring readers?
Understand the Point of the Scene
In my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow, I have several scenes in which Rae thinks about the clues she’s uncovered in the mystery of who is stalking her. She is trying to solve the mystery on her own, so she can’t discuss her clues with anyone. Each time I approached a thinking scene like this, I had to first understand what the goal of the scene was.
Here’s a short scene from Rae’s solo investigation:
The next morning, yawning, I lifted my camera from the card table and wrapped it in its towel. Between staying up late to do research and trouble falling asleep, the yawns kept on coming.
Stepping onto the tiny landing, I looked for another note, but I didn’t really expect one. My truck parked on the street sent an unmistakable message that I was home. Was there a way to hide my phone so I could get a video of the creep if he left a note at my door again? The landing wasn’t big enough for me to set anything on it to camouflage it.
I descended the stairs. My garbage can and Mrs. Blaney’s sat under them. Could I hide my phone here? I might get a glimpse of a face through the steps, but I might not. The bare trees and bushes near the stairs wouldn’t hide a sparrow. Even if I did hide my phone, my battery wouldn’t last all night with the video function running.
I kicked the bottom step, then limped over to my truck. There had to be a way.
- Point of the scene: Rae trying to figure out if she can set up a camera to take a photo of who is leaving the notes.
- Problem: How do I show Rae thinking about this?
- Solution: Have her examine the area where she might set up the camera.
When I have a character thinking, I need to show how her train of thought arises naturally. In this scene, the progression of thoughts comes from Rae studying the area surrounding the door to her apartment. Her analysis also allows me to keep the reader grounded in the scene. I don’t want my character to think so long that the reader forgets where the character is. Our surroundings still affect us when we’re deep in thought.
Keep It Short
Because readers expect action, especially in genre fiction, keep the quiet scenes short. I shouldn’t let Rae’s thoughts wander away from the point of the scene. Since I write mysteries, I have to let my amateur detective reflect. But I can break up that reflection over several quiet scenes, interspersed with more active ones.
Do you think every novel needs a few quiet scenes? Why or why not?