How to Make a Bland Scene Interesting

Boring. The dreaded word of would-be writers. A death sentence for countless works. As a writer you’re an entertainer, so you must keep your audience interested in your story at all times. This article will help you reinforce your grasp on how to make a bland scene interesting. I’ll give you a concrete example of a scene outline that was incredibly boring in its first version, and then present the thought process that led it to evolve and become actually interesting.

Here is what the initial scene outline looked like:

Scene 1: Adam in the classroom
Goal: Introduce Adam.
Summary:  Adam Jones is too bored in class, so he finds a way to kill time.

We’re in a classroom. The setting is very mundane – we all went to school – so there’s no need to focus on it.

The classic pitfall to fall in is to keep describing the location and explore the protagonist’s inner thoughts. At the end of the scene, nothing happened. As the creator of a story, you will be passionate about every little detail but don’t forget to keep the reader in mind. If nothing happens in a scene, what impression does that make on him? Why should he stick around for the rest of the story?

First I’ll start the scene by swiftly showing what induces laziness and boredom: an excruciating lecture from a professor.

Then I’ll move on to the goal of the scene: Introduce Adam – the protagonist.

What can I do to make that scene more interesting?

Usually I could use dialogue to liven up a scene: make a joke, hint at character traits. But this is a classroom and students aren’t supposed to talk to each other. At best, they can whisper two or three sentences. Not much I can play with. So instead of words, I can use acts and make my protagonist do something interesting.

What items are at his disposal so he can kill time? Pens, notebooks, paper… paper? What can one do with paper? Wait…

Origami crane

Now we’re onto something!

Remember, this is the protagonist we’re talking about. One of the common fatal mistakes when creating a story is having a bland, forgettable protagonist. I need to show something unusual and even unique about Adam, or else why should anyone care?

So he’s in a classroom, waiting for the bell to ring. Except that’s the case for everybody else. There has to be something about Adam that sets him apart from his classmates. So while they are quietly staring into space, he finds something to do.

Now, granted, folding paper isn’t much of a big deal. But I chose a realistic setting so I can’t rely on anything that is extraordinary and out-of-this-world. Therefore I must find a way to make the mundane punchier, more attention-grabbing. The origami idea is interesting but it still needs to get more uncommon, more impressive. One way to do that is to ramp it up to eleven a have Adam create not one, not two, but an entire collection of weird objects. At least ten or twelve.

One or two paper objects is not that special. But TWELVE?? That’s not just creative, that’s INSANE. You don’t see a guy like that every day. Now Adam isn’t a bland slate anymore, he has a first layer of characterization: he’s a creative person who can get obsessive about a trivial pastime.

Although I have found something capable of catching attention, this scene is still rather pointless. If it ends with Adam simply putting his stuff in his bag, what’s the takeaway? How can a scene like this lead to the next one and the rest of the plot?

This is not a story about Adam becoming an origami prodigy, but instead one about him looking for a lost student, and growing up as a person in the process.

So what do I do?

I’m going to give Adam a problem to solve. In other words, I will create conflict.

But before that, take note…

Whatever you choose to make a scene interesting, keep it consistent with the rest of the story

While this paper-folding hobby wasn’t part of how I initially envisioned the character, it is convenient for the goal of that scene (introduce my protagonist in an interesting way). But if I use that only once, just to reach that scene goal and then drop it forever, the writing will feel artificial and manipulative.

The reader will eventually think “Wait, what happened to the origami stuff? Was that just a cheap trick to hook me?” That narrative device needs a consistency of its own, beyond its initial purpose. That way it won’t feel like a one-time gimmick, but rather an integral part of the story that was always there and keeps existing for in-universe reasons. A story isn’t a bunch of ideas mashed together, but a cohesive tissue where everything blends.

In other words, I need to keep my narrative choices consistent.

I will make that origami pastime part of Adam’s character: he will do it again in future scenes, and other characters will mention it, maybe in admiration or just to mock him. Not a major character trait, but consistency shows that you’re thinking ahead and not just throwing random ideas.

Seeking consistency led me to think of an interesting idea: when Adam first meets the student who will soon go missing, he makes a paper crane and gives it to her in the hope of cheering her up. Now the origami hobby isn’t a one-time gimmick anymore, it’s the vehicle for a blooming relationship between two major characters. I have now a potentially powerful scene to write.

One example of consistency I recently came across is in Breaking Bad, where there are a few small moments where Jesse sings a song called “Fallacies”. I found it funny the first time, but after the second and third times, it got me thinking about how Jesse – a drug dealer – could have pursued music and lived a happier life if he really wanted to. Small things like this can resonate with the audience.

When you use something as a narrative device for a specific scene, show it again from time to time in a fitting, non-obtrusive way, in order to make the story more cohesive and organic.

Now let’s go back to the magic word: conflict.

Be an ass to your characters: get them in trouble

Adam just wants to have fun, but as the writer, I can’t let him get away with it.
A student folds paper to kill time. What could go wrong?
With a little thinking I drew out that scene’s potential. Now it has its own beginning, middle and end. Here’s what I came up with:

– The guy next to Adam takes some of the origami pieces without his consent (inciting incident);

– Students pass along Adam’s creations while he watches powerlessly (external conflict: things go out of control);

– As the creator, Adam becomes the center of attention, something he’s not used to and which makes him embarrassed and worried (internal conflict: inability to handle people);

– The teacher finds out about the origami business… (tension and stakes go up)

– …before she can reprimand anyone, Adam shows integrity by taking the blame. His honesty gets the teacher to cool down and move on calmly. (resolution).

Scene goal reached: introduction of the protagonist and characterization through conflict.

See how tension escalated here? Sure, the stakes aren’t sky-high. The president is safe and all will be forgotten the next day. But we all go through those moments of trouble in our daily lives.

Students are having fun and the teacher realizes her lecture isn’t that interesting. That’s a problem. Adam is the source of it and he knows it. Before the teacher bursts out in anger he takes responsibility by confessing his crime.

Now I have a scene that provides tension and insight into a character. Much more interesting than what I thought of at first. During the story creation process it’s important not to rush with the first idea you think of; dig deeper to and you’ll find ways to make your narrative more engaging.

How to make a bland scene interesting in two steps:

1. Create conflict

Adam’s quirky creations are travelling from student to student, increasing the odds of the teacher finding out. Adam just wants to keep them for himself but the class won’t let him. A person in this situation would feel embarrassed and worried. But there’s more…

2. Highlight character

How does Adam solve this problem? He takes responsibility although he could have kept quiet. A character who makes choices is more interesting than one who sits and watches. Adam won’t hide while someone takes the blame for what he instigated. He’d rather chill in his corner but when the situation calls for it he will step up.

Now I have my final scene outline, which is much richer than before and ready to be written in detail:

Scene 1: Adam in the classroom
Goal: Introduce Adam. Show that he 1) is a lazy student 2) is creative 3) has integrity
Summary:  Adam Jones is too bored in class, so he makes a collection of origami. The situation gets out of hand as students pass along his creations. The teacher finds out about the origami but Adam takes the blame by saying he’s the one who made it all. Thanks to his honesty the teacher calms down and continues her lesson.

Review every scene in your story and ask yourself: Does it succeed in keeping the audience interested? How well does it stand on its own? How can I make a mundane situation insightful? Is the current iteration of my scene the best it can be? How does it tie to the rest of the story?

Until next time,

Jon Oscar.

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