A little breathing room

September seems to be a popular birthday month. It must have something to do with cuddling together when it’s cold outside during the traditional winter. I celebrated my birthday this past week, too. While I may not have been able to celebrate with everyone I would have wanted there, I did enjoy a very fun and filling tasting menu supper in the city.

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But I’m not here to talk about indulgent food.

Recently, several storyteller friends of mine have brought up the topic of scenes or chapters in a story where nothing really happens. There’s no big action, no deep conflict, just the characters slowing down to talk, reflect, or enjoy themselves. The prevalent argument in today’s how-to columns is that every scene should push the story forward. In some cases, that technique works: strict short stories, for example, where the prose should be so airtight that every dialogue and action needs to contribute to the plot. For a longer story, though, I believe slow-downs are necessary.

A story can’t stay at 11 all of the time. The characters – and the reader – need some breathing room between the big conflicts. This downtime can be represented in any number of ways: a conversation, a love scene, even a birthday party.

For some reason, I like using birthday celebrations to look at a character’s life. In 1 More Chance!, I used Chie’s boyfriend’s birthday to introduce her to his family (among other things). In Fearless, Ross’s birthday is an excuse for his crew to get together for a party on the beach. In the “Finding Mister Wright” universe, Rob’s birthday is used to contrast the ideas of life and death. And, in my most recent story on the subject, one of my From Hell bounty hunters uses an old birthday to bury his past. Now, 1 More Chance! is a massive, meandering relationship story, and the “Finding Mister Wright” and From Hell examples are self-indulgent free-writes, so they follow their own non-rules. The Fearless birthday chapter, though, offers what I’ve always thought to be a necessary moment of relaxation between the second and third arcs, where the characters get to have a little bit of simple happiness before the new conflict hits. Seen alone, the party on the beach doesn’t do much for the novel as a whole. The main point of the chapter is to show how well these characters fit together, and how far they’ve come from the beginning of the story. There’s not much more to it than that. But I think it’s good to have smaller, calmer moments like this in a story, to show the reader who and what has been affected by the conflict that’s happened, or by the conflict yet to come. And, just as it’s good to have these smaller, calmer moments in stories, it’s good to have them in life.

Birthdays are as much about our own growth as they are about family, friends, noisemakers, and food. That growth includes rest as well as action. So let’s push on with our stories. But let’s also not forget to allow for a little bit of breathing room now and again.

What are your thoughts on quiet moments in stories? Do you ever use a birthday occasion in your stories? What kind of birthday cake do you like best? πŸ™‚

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10 thoughts on “A little breathing room

  1. I definitely agree with you that stories can’t always be up at 11 the entire time. They need cool down times for sure, and I think that such times help get readers, characters, and even writers to get back into perspective. Honestly, all I can think about is the overload of emotional stimulation that could fry my brain if we didn’t have those moments to breathe. :shudder:

    As for birthdays, I have used some in stories before. And, I honestly don’t remember if any of those scenes ever did forward the plot, but I did see a lot of what you mentioned about growth in relationships in comparison to the beginning. I do want to try a scene where trouble hits on a character’s birthday, just to see what it’s like. I know I’ll feel so guilty for doing it, though!

    After our conversation earlier on the topic, I feel that you helped me see more value in these these scenes. it’s not a wasted scene, for sure, but it’s also might not be necessary to prioritize having it, at least not too often. There’s definitely a need for it to create balance in the rising and falling actions that you had mentioned on my post.

    Happy Birthday again! I hope your birthday week is going great! :hugs:

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    • Thanks!

      I’ve seen a lot of trouble hit on a wedding day, but I think a birthday could be pretty fun. Especially if it were a kid’s birthday party! Can you imagine 15 or 30 kids running and screaming with sugar-induced excitement while some bad guy feels totally overwhelmed and underprepared for the chaos? That would be hilarious. πŸ˜€

      It was your post and another friend’s post from a few weeks ago that made me think more consciously about when and why I like slower-moving scenes in stories. Even in the crime novels I read, there are spaces where the detective gets to catch his breath, and it’s those scenes that have really made me feel for the characters affected by the actions and conflicts.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. I have never thought to use a birthday party as a “pause,” I usually use a mundane scene out of one of the characters lives. Interesting concept! My favorite cake is a yellow or white cake, with whipped topping, in pastel colors. The darker colors tend to taste awful! πŸ™‚

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    • Compared to big action scenes, a birthday party can feel a lot like a mundane moment. Unless it’s a little kid’s party, in which case, all bets are off! Lol!

      I do love a fluffy white cake, too, Neeks. Though, I’ve also got a soft spot for gooey chocolate. Must be gooey, though. I can’t stand the dry stuff!

      Thanks for popping round!

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  3. Well, you know I agree with you on this 100 percent! πŸ˜‰ I’ll agree with the experts to a pointβ€”there shouldn’t be too many pauses like in a story, especially one that’s action-driven. But as a long-time reader, I’ve always enjoyed a scene or two where I could learn more about a character’s life and catch my breath. Frankly, I believe the characters need them, too, if they’re going to have any strength left for the grand finale.

    That tasting dinner looks divine. And for my September birthday, we went for a variety of cupcakes from a specialty shop because I love so many different kinds of cakes. Ahh, those were yummy! πŸ™‚

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    • I was definitely thinking of your post about this topic, JM! thespooneytoaster mentioned it, as well, and I had been considering the choices we make in editing, so it seemed like a nice little topic.

      The tasting dinner was very good, but extremely filling! I had to have my husband eat most of my lamb, and a friend ate my cheese. A cupcake medley sounds pretty divine, as well! It sounds like you had a splendid birthday, too! Thanks for taking the time to stop by for mine. πŸ™‚

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  4. Quiet moments are a must for a story. I completely agree when you say that they let the readers catch their breath, the characters sort themselves out, and are great for showing how both have grown through the story progression. Heck, those are some of the best moments when I write the Rogues, I think. Sure, they are four awesome pilots by trade, but they are also practically brothers and can enjoy free time as such.

    As for birthdays, I’ve never really been picky about cakes. I’d much rather just be able to spend it with my wife and my friends. Of course, were there to be chocolate cake, I wouldn’t say no… πŸ˜€

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    • That’s one writer’s personality trait that I can never detach from my characters, shade: an appreciation for chocolate. πŸ™‚

      The only tricky part about slower moments is that it’s easy to get lost in the fun day-to-day interactions, where most of our own lives occur. You do a good job balancing them with the action in your pilot stories, though, not just the Rogues but the Cypher stuff, too. I think it’s good for us to keep ourselves open to the unique interactions afforded by action scenes as well as slower moments. I’ve only recently started to understand how valuable those seconds of quick decision can be to a character, and to how a reader feels about a character.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Happy Belated Birthday! Looks like a delicious night!

    I think that scenes have to impart new information whether it be character development or plot development. There is discussion of scenes and sequels in many writing books. We have to have action and then processing of what happened. Quiet scenes are important for that. I think the real issue is when nothing new is said or done. That kills pacing.

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    • Thanks, Kourtney! It was a yummy dinner…very filling, though!

      It’s good to hear from real authors like you that those slower scenes are not all bad. Agreed that they need to convey new information, but it’s also a relief that not everything has to happen in a big conflict moment. Even in the crime novels I read, I like those slower bits where the detective gets to process. πŸ™‚

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