Let’s talk “quiet scenes.” What are they? How do you utilize them? How do you make sure they’re just as dynamic as scenes with lots of action? Come along as we discuss this roundtable style!
Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
QUESTION 1: What is a quiet scene?
KAT: To me, a quiet scene is a moment for the character to breathe and have some introspection. It’s time for them to gather their thoughts about what has happened to them and share that with the readers. It gives insight into who the characters are to show why they make the decisions they do and why their actions are specific to their character. That way, when they do things we know fits with their character it’s satisfying. (Alternatively, when they do things seemingly out of character it can be shocking because we know them well from the quiet moments). Quiet scenes are where emotions shine through because they are the focus of these moments with little to no external action.
AXIE: On one note, a quiet scene is literally as described: quiet. There are no explosions or shouting, and there’s very little movement, if any. There’s usually a quieter emotion attached to the scene, like an expression of love or a character figuring something out in their head. For me, they usually are written with a delicate hand, and follow one thematic train of thought the whole way through, like a character expressing a fear or desire. I think a powerful quiet scene can set the thematic heart of a book.
AKS: Oh, I love that Axie. When characters have a lot of overwhelming things (aka the plot) happen to them, I think it’s helpful to give them a breather to process what is happening and evaluate their path forward. Not only does it allow time for character introspection and connection, as Kat said, but it can also continue to showcase the character’s agency and give context to the action scenes.
QUESTION 2: Do you think quiet scenes get a bad rap i.e. people think they’re boring? What’s the difference between a quiet scene and a boring scene? And if a scene is quiet AND boring, how do you make a quiet scene not boring?
KAT: I think that any scene can be boring, even an action scene. Because if it is written in a boring way it can still be boring to read. Therefore, I think it’s a fallacy to say quiet scenes are the only ones that can be boring. And I also think a quiet scene isn’t a boring scene if it’s written for the right reasons. Like I was saying before I think a quiet scene is a moment for introspection. So this is kind of where I tend to write most of my angst moments (LOL). I also like to delve into a characters relationships with others and their feelings about others (including the romance relationship :wiggle eyebrows:). I just love those times when the two characters are just sitting somewhere and talking. Nothing fancy is happening around them. They’re just having a chat.
AKS: I totally agree that any scene can be boring. For me, the key is engaging the reader. I read this interview between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (I’m already anticipating Kat calling me a nerd for this lmao) where they talked about a scene in which there’s a bomb under a table and two people are talking about something mundane. Suddenly the bomb explodes, and while it might be shocking to the viewer it’s basically a boring scene. They don’t care about the conversation. Instead, imagine the audience knows there’s a bomb there. They know when it’ll explode. And ten minutes before, two people are sitting there talking about something mundane. Nothing has changed about the set up, but in the second instance, the mundane conversation naturally becomes way more interesting because the audience is involved and they care that these characters are about to die while discussing how much they hate tacos or something. They used this example as a way to discuss building suspense, but I actually think about that a lot when it comes to scenes where my characters have little action. I want to make sure there is some kind of tension simmering underneath (like the bomb) so no matter what my characters are doing or talking about, or even if they’re reflecting and processing, it’s still keeping the reader engaged, and therefore the scene remains interesting.
KAT: I would never call you a nerd!
AXIE: Ooh yes, sometimes my eyes glaze over in action scenes, and it’s definitely all about the way it’s written; just as quiet scenes can be boring or not depending on how they’re written. I personally think any scene is stronger when the character is learning in the scene, whether they’re realizing something about themselves or being vulnerable with another. I think the magic of quiet scenes is they’re sort of a “stop and look at me moment.” These are the scenes where you can really show the character growing, processing, and changing.
KAT: Oh, I really like that point about a character learning in every scene. It makes sense because when it just feels like chess pieces being moved in an action scene that’s when I get bored the most. But when a character is growing or learning (or if I’m learning more about the character as a reader) then it’s much more dynamic to me!
QUESTION 3: How much of your book do you like to have as quiet? Or does the percentage change with the book? Does it depend on genre you’re writing? Do you utilize quiet scenes any differently in different genres?
AXIE: I honestly think quiet scenes are more powerful when there’s less of them, just like shocking scenes are more powerful when there’s less of them. I think in terms of pacing, I like it when quiet scenes appear after big dramatic events, to give time for the character and reader to process. My favorite parts in books are always either big dramatic, angsty moments (like a kiss or a confession or a betrayal) OR a quiet scene that really pulls at the heartstrings or gives resonance and a deeper meaning to a story.
KAT: I actually like to have a good chunk of any book I write to be quiet scenes. Maybe because I often equate them with angst, and I love angst hahaha. But in all seriousness, I think that a good balance of high action scenes and quiet scenes is good. And I also think that even if it’s a “quiet scene” it can still have a feeling of tension. I don’t think the amount of quiet scenes I writes depends on the genre I write. That being said, I’ve only really written Fantasy and Sci-fi, so maybe I just don’t know yet! I don’t think the core use of quiet scenes will vary depending on genre, because they’ll all be used for internal development of my characters. But I think that they’ll provide different feelings within different genres. Where I think I use them as moments to breathe in my fantasy novels. The contemporary books I read often use quiet moments as the tear jerkers. I love that about contemporary, they can make me feel really deep emotions.
AKS: Though I write fantasy adventures, I tend to keep my focus on characters. I find it more interesting to explore why a character does something–and the consequences of those decisions–than a lot of plot events, so I feel like a good portion of my scenes end up being quieter. I actually end up writing the slower, introspective scenes toward the middle of my book. My beginnings and endings are usually filled with external goals and stakes, whereas the middle is where the characters take that time to process everything that has happened and then decide how they’re going head into the culmination of their goals and wants.
AXIE: Also are scenes either quiet or not? Like… most scenes are in the middle hahahaha
AKS: Oh, definitely!
KAT: True. I don’t know if I really know what a quiet scene is all the time LoL
AXIE: lol me too. I only know it when someone is like “this is a quiet scene.”
AKS: I read a book recently where the ending felt super rushed because the author decided that all the emotional processing would happen AFTER the action. I actually thought the emotional punches would have hit a lot stronger if the characters had processed some of those things while they were happening.
AXIE: Ooh yeah, for sure
KAT: For sure. They’re so important
AXIE: I don’t think quiet scenes should be the only way to process but A way, etc. especially at the ending. That’s when a lot of the payoff of the quieter scenes is shown as the character like does/completes what she’s already ruminated on
AKS: Oh, for sure not. There are a lot of ways to draw out moments (like slowing down time) but I think those emotional scenes are so necessary in the middle of action–especially action where the stakes are literally life and death. We have to truly feel that characters are afraid for their lives and even a quiet moment within the scene can give readers that.
KAT: Yes, Aks! Like in the final duel scene in Hamilton. Where there’s literally a bullet “zooming” through the air and all the action stops and we just hear Hamilton’s inner monologue about this moment and his life and his mistakes. I loved that we were given that internal stuff even in the middle of what should be a very quick and chaotic moment!
KAT: Also, going back to what Axie said. I think the books that lose me the most are the ones that don’t allow down time in the second half. Like they falsely believe the second half = full throttle = no quiet scenes.