I have a confession to make: I just watched Sex and the City for the first time last year. Even though I live in NYC and love shoes and pink cocktails. Even though I briefly dreamed of being a sex columnist. Even though I am a woman in my 30s who grew up in America.
Despite all this, I didn’t watch the show when it was on because in the late 90s/early 00s I was a contrarian and loved to hate what everyone else loved to love. I finally got around to it sometime last year, and I have to admit I didn’t make it past Season 4 because oh my God why don’t these women just get therapy already? Still, there’s something from the show that stuck with me, something I’ve since incorporated into my writing.
Sex and the City is primarily a show about people talking. There’s a little shagging but not much in the way of big, dramatic action: no car chases, no shootouts, no wild animals or flashy dance numbers. But if you binge-watch a few episodes, you start to realize they’re never just talking: They’re talking while walking down the street eating frozen yogurt, or gossiping in downward dog during a yoga class (which seems wildly disrespectful, but whatever), or drinking wine and trying on clothes.
These actions, small as they are, help move the scenes forward. They are literally not static because they can’t be: the characters are moving, eating, stretching, frowning at price tags. At the very least, it’s a visual break from the relentless self-analysis. At best, it’s a visual nod to the theme of the episode.
Cut to a a couple weeks ago. I was drafting my latest book and found myself nose-to-nose with a scene I really didn’t want to write. In my outline, it was a group therapy session at a therapeutic wilderness school in Oregon. It needed to be there—it’s the moment my protagonist realizes how horrible the school really is—but I didn’t even want to read a group therapy session, let alone write one.
I realized then that this scene violates my Sex and the City rule: it’s people sitting around talking. But how could I make it more dynamic? Group therapy is people sitting around talking. It can get heated and passionate and testy and even violent, but it has to begin with a bunch of butts in chairs, right?
Wrong. I brought myself back to my setting (a therapeutic wilderness school) and remembered a throwaway detail I’d added a few chapters before: a ropes course. What if I set the session on the ropes course? And then (because I could, and also because I am maybe a tiny little bit sadistic) I gave my main character a debilitating fear of heights.
All of a sudden I was psyched to write the scene I’d been dreading. I couldn’t wait to get my protagonist up in those trees and scare the crap out of her…and now I could do it in so many more ways than just a bunch of angsty teens hurling insults from the safety of their chairs.
Adding action to a talking scene works on so many levels:
- It saves you from pages of boring “he said,” “she said” dialogue tags. Now your characters can punctuate their thoughts by steering the boat into a canal or taking a bite of ice cream or swinging to the next tree.
- It introduces your characters to readers in new ways. How does she steer the boat? What flavor ice cream does he order, and what does that say about him? What is she feeling as she mounts that swing?
- It makes your scene more fun to “watch,” creating visual interest for the reader. (Also, it can help the people who decide to make movies out of books decide to make a movie out of yours.)
- It can turn a simple conversation into a major plot point and lead you to new and exciting ideas about your own book.
The lesson? Never let your characters just sit around and talk. Give them something to do: whether it’s flying a spaceship or applying sunscreen. Then take whatever they’re doing, amplify it, and thank Carrie Bradshaw for throwing your static scene into motion.
Have you had any success adding dynamic action to a static scene? Tell me about it in the comments.