How to Write Effective Quiet Scenes

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?

For more tips on writing plots, click here.

Writing Action Scenes

I find writing action scenes one of the most difficult and rewarding scenes to write. They’re difficult because all the elements of a story–character, setting, and plot–have to be in correct balance so readers can be carried away with the action, living the scene with the main character. It ruins the scene if the reader is racing through this exciting passage and trips over something that doesn’t work.

Such as:

“Hero grabbed a lamp and hurled it at Villain.”

READER: Wait a minute. I thought they were fighting in the kitchen. Where’d the lamp come from?

Analysis of an Action Scene

When I write an action scene, I want to plant my readers firmly in the head the main character (MC). Here’s how I wrote the beginning of an action scene from my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow:

  • 1. At the sidewalk, I glanced up the hill. And dropped the bags.

MC commits an action that immediately tells readers something surprising or shocking has occurred.

  • 2. A figure, backlit by the streetlamp, stood at the corner. 

Readers learn what has shocked MC. Explanation is short because action scenes should read fast to build excitement.

  • 3. Spinning, I fell to my knees. I snagged the bags and, stumbling across the lot, reached the guardrail at the opposite side. 

I use specific verbs and nouns so readers can imagine what MC is doing and where she is.

  • 4. I scrambled over it and fell five feet down the retaining wall into the little yard behind an empty building. Panting, I raised myself into hunched stance and ran, scrambling over snow-encrusted chunks of crumbling asphalt. 

More specific verbs and nouns to make scene vivid.

  • 5. Please, Father. It can’t end like this. 

Now readers are inside MC’s head to know exactly how she is feeling and thinking.

  • 6. Behind the deli, I slipped, and the urn rolled out of its bag. I squinted against the flakes. No silhouette. Nobody. 

Scene description to orient readers in the setting. Also show what MC is doing–looking for her pursuer.

  • 7. I needed to get out on Main Street and head for Mal’s office. I slapped piles of snow until my palm smacked the urn. I shoved it into a bag and ran into the alley beside the deli. A streetlight illuminated the end that came out on Main Street, welcoming me like a lighthouse. 

The first sentence is a thought. Then action and description to keep the scene moving and readers grounded in it.

  • 8. Bent under the weight of my backpack, I struggled toward Main Street, gripping and regripping the sagging bags. 

“Bent”, “struggled”, and “regripping” convey MC’s perception of scene.

  • 9. A figure ran across the entrance to the alley. 

Report of what MC sees, which orients readers to where MC and pursuer are in the setting.

  • 10. My throat closed as my feet froze to the icy pavement. 

Reaction that reveals the MC’s feelings.

  • 11. What … what do I do? 

MC’s thought, so readers are living the scene with the MC.

  • 12. Wheeling, I fell against the deli’s rough brick wall and glanced back. 

More action, keeping it short and to the point.

For more tips on action scenes, click here for my previous post and this one from author Michelle Griep.

What are the best actions scenes you’ve read? What advice do you have for writing action scenes?

4 Ways to Fix Troublesome Plot Points

This post is a blast from the past. I posted the original over 3 years ago. When I came across it, I thought it would be helpful to repost it. If you are running into plotting problems, below are 4 ways to fix troublesome plot points.

As you work through a story, you may be tempted to tell a plot point rather than show it. It’s so much easier and quicker. Sometimes, a plot point needs to be told so as not to bog down the narrative. This is especially true in mysteries. Often characters are relaying information to each other. It’s perfectly fine to tell it, so I don’t repeat myself. For example, if I have written in detail the conversation Bob has with Ann, I do not have to repeat all the details when Bob tells Tom about it. I can write, “Bob told Tom what he learned from Ann over lunch.” Or “Bob reported his conversation with Ann, leaving out the part about her poodle.” But wanting to tell a plot point instead of showing can be a sign of a bigger problem.

The plot is too complicated.

I started “A Rose from the Ashes” in Christmas fiction off the beaten path from the point of view of a female character who wants to figure out who is leaving two roses in the fireplace at the abandoned children’s home. This woman drags her nineteen-year-old friend into her amateur sleuthing. At the end of the story, I planned to reveal the teen was behind the roses, then have her explain she was trying to find her father, then have her explain she was also investigating a murderous attack on her mother. It hit me that, while the plot was good, I was presenting it in a needlessly complicated way.The story belonged to the nineteen-year-old girl. I should let her tell it. Once I changed my main character, the plot complications smoothed out beautifully.

The plot point is unnecessary.

If I can’t think of an interesting way to show a plot point, I’m tempted to tell it. That’s when I should examine it and see if I really need it. Maybe it’s an unnecessary complication. Or I may realize …

The plot point needs a change.

Let’s say my amateur sleuth must find out that Old Man Thompson had an illegitimate child in high school. I was planning to have the gossipy hair stylist tell him. But I can’t get a good handle on the stylist character, so I want to rush through the scene, telling it, instead of showing it. So I change how my sleuth learns the information. Maybe his grandmother tells him because she graduated with Old Man Thompson. Now that provides my main character with a personal connection to his investigation. Or maybe he finds an old diary with the information. Where does he find the diary? Whose diary is it? Those questions and others can inspire me to show and not tell my plot point.

The plot point is unconvincing.

If you’ve watched mystery shows and movies very often, you know what I mean. The detective discovers the true meaning behind a clue and spends minutes convincing a skeptical colleague. But the detective isn’t really trying convince his friend that an unlikely suspect did it. Actually, the screenwriter knows he’s thrown in an outrageous twist and is hoping to get the audience to believe it by having his detective explain the clue to his friend, who is standing in the place of the audience. For example:

Detective: “Yes, those mysterious yellow and green feathers were deliberately left at the murder scene to make us suspect that Miss Prim had trained her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup. But in reality, Mrs. Abernathy mixed the poison in the sugar bowl because she knew her husband always ate cereal on Tuesdays and always put sugar on it.”

Skeptical Friend: “That’s hard to believe.”

Detective: “How about this: Miss Prim really did train her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup?”

Skeptical Friend, edging toward door: “Not really.”

I ran into this problem when I had to create a reason for why Rae’s father hadn’t looked for her when he thought her mother was pregnant with his child. I came up with a long-winded explanation but realized I was trying to convince myself. So I simplified it. The entire county thought Rae’s mother had died in a fire. For years, her father did, too. When he thought Rae’s mom might have escaped the fire, he figured she had aborted the baby, which she had threatened to do. Simple and convincing. If I couldn’t convince myself of this plot point, I needed either to get rid of it or change it.

For more tips on plotting, click here.

How have you used troubleshooting to improve your plots? Or what plot points have you read that you think needed troubleshooting?

Kick off the Plot at the Beginning

As many new writers learn, the job of the first page of the story is to hook the reader. There are many cheap ways to do that–like a dream or the reader finds out that the first thrilling five pages are part of the a story the main character is reading. But if you can kick off the plot at the beginning as well as establishing the major characters and setting, you are also creating a hook for the reader that genuinely reflects what they can expect in the story.

Below is the opening paragraphs to my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow, with analysis


This novel is a mystery and the first line kicks it off by showing what somebody wrote in an anonymous note.

  • 2. I stared at the sheet of copier paper in my hand as the note fluttered in a gust of January wind. 

The reader knows that this “I” is a female named Rae. When you write in first person, you need to establish right away if the narrator is male or female, so readers can start imagining the character. A disembodied personality will turn off readers. I’m also setting the scene in this paragraph—it’s January and Rae is outside.

  • 3. Really? It had only taken three weeks for someone to hate me and my mom enough to leave an anonymous insult? 

Since the entire novel is told from Rae’s POV, every word is supposed to be from her. The first paragraphs are the readers’ introduction to her personality. I also work in some backstory.

  • 4. Turning over the envelope, I saw my address was written in the same marker, same all-caps style. It was postmarked. I must have missed it when I grabbed my mail last night

These are details to help the reader see the setting and the action. It also shows what kind of mind Rae has, since she’s examining the letter, not just reading it

  • 5. Shivering on the miniscule landing to my apartment, I blew out a sigh, which formed a little cloud in the freezing air. At least the idiot hadn’t crept up to my mailbox in the dead of night. I shivered again, and it wasn’t from another gust. 

More scene setting, more thoughts to get to know Rae.

  • 6. People could hold a grudge in Marlin County, Ohio. I’d learned that in the last three weeks since I discovered Mal was my dad and announced Bella Rydell was my mother. The strained smiles, cold stares, conversations that didn’t get much past “hello” and “I’m fine.” Mom had made a lot of enemies, but that was twenty years ago. I’d told everyone who asked the story of how she’d been saved and changed her life. Well, most of it. 

Just enough backstory to help readers understand Rae’s thoughts about the note

  • 7. I shoved the piece of paper back in the envelope, tossed it inside my apartment, and locked the door behind me. 

Action and scene setting.

  • 8. Holding my tripod and a roll of leftover bulletin board paper in one hand, I clutched the strap of my backpack with the other and climbed down the icy steps to the pad in front of the garage. Picking my way across Mrs. Blaney’s snow-covered lawn, I pulled the keys to my ancient truck from the pocket of my down vest. The Rust Bucket sat by the curb, draped in a thin layer of snow that couldn’t disguise its demolition derby appearance.

More action and scene setting. I provide specific details about the scene such as “holding my tripod”, “clutched the strap of my backpack”, “my ancient truck”, to help readers “see” the scene and to know Rae better. The action, thought, and setting work together to carry the plot, which is the mystery surrounding who wrote the nasty note and why.

For more tips on writing plots, click here.

What stories have you read that do a great job to kick off the plot at the beginning and hook readers on the first page?

First Steps in Plotting a Novel

As we continue to follow “The Journey of a Book” this year, we are making a stop this month at plot. A story is just a report without it. states defines plot as “the plan or main story” of “a movie or literary work.” So if the plot is the plan, how do authors create the plan for their stories? In my writing tips this month, I will break down how I plot, starting with the first steps in plotting a novel.

Like so much in the arts, there is no wrong way to your first step. Many authors swear by such famous plot structures, as the 3 Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. But if a mash up of plotting structures gets you started, go for it.

Side note: My oldest actually had an English teacher tell him that every single story ever written follows the Hero’s Journey. (The teacher has obviously never read a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe mystery.)

My Inspiration to Start a Story

Like most artistic endeavors, it’s usually impossible for me to know exactly when and what inspires my story, but I often think of the climax first. Since I am writing a mystery series, my main character is already established as well as her family and friends. When I imagine the climax, I know exactly who the hero is. I also know who the villain is, or at least his or her name, what crime the person has committed, and the relationship to the MC.

Once I have my climax, I know the end of my journey. The question that now faces me is where to begin.

Endings are Easy. Beginnings are Hard.

At least for me. So much is expected of the beginning that I freeze. The beginning should introduce the main character (MC), several major characters, the main problem the MC faces, and the world in which the main character lives. All of this, and I have to write it with enough tension and conflict to keep readers turning the pages.

When I had to start the first chapter of my second Rae Riley novel, I was so overwhelmed with all the duties I had to accomplish in it that I could not get started. That first chapter stymied me for the longest time. I finally decided garbage was better than no garbage and wrote it. After a friend critiqued it, I found it was better than I thought.

Next week, I will get into the details of what I included in the first chapter to show you how to kickstart the plot.

For more writing tips on plot, click here.

Writers, what are your first steps in plotting a novel?

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