In editing work – my own and others’ – I often come across scenes that feel rushed. The action swings by so quickly that we don’t feel like it really happened; instead we have an uncomfortable feeling that we have missed something.
When I feel that a scene is rushed, I find that it’s usually because I haven’t grounded it in the real world enough. This isn’t just a matter of adding description; it’s writing the scene so that it is experienced from the given point of view.
So what do I do?
Eliminate Reported Dialogue
First, I look for reported dialogue, where the narrator summarizes what a character said. The characters need to say their words; readers can sense when you’ve taken a shortcut.
Of course, we also don’t want reams and reams of uninteresting dialogue in the scene, right? If that’s your worry, though, then why did the narrator have to report that something was said?
So our options here are to remove the reported dialogue completely, or find a way to make it into interesting dialogue that’s actually on the page.
Use the Senses
One of the most easily missed opportunities in enhancing a scene is looking for ways to bring in the senses of your characters – especially senses other than sight.
That doesn’t mean the point of view character needs to touch and smell everything in the room; it’s a matter of being aware of the environment the character inhabits. Is the air dry, moist, warm, cool? Is there any background noise? (We are very rarely in a completely silent environment.) What is the light like? Is there an unfamiliar smell?
Put yourself in the point of view, and describe that experience.
Inhabit the Point of View
The sensory descriptions are a good start; but to really make a scene feel right, the narration needs to truly inhabit the scene.
This can be hard work, but I find it gives the biggest payoff for readers. It goes deeper than just sensory description, too; you need to not only feel what the POV character feels, but think what the POV character thinks.
Imagine your character walks into a study in a stately home. What does she notice? If she’s a bookish character, she would scan the volumes on the shelves to see if there’s anything interesting. If he’s the son of the owner of the study, he might look at the desk–what was dad working on? If she’s trying to find the dead study owner’s will, she’ll be on the lookout for hidey-holes and secret spaces in the furniture. If he’s the study owner’s mortal enemy, he might notice–disgusting!–the elephant’s foot wastebasket and stuffed tiger head on the wall.
It’s not a matter of describing everything in the room; it’s a matter of making choices about what’s worth describing, and making those choices based on the character whose eyes are actually viewing the scene.
Scenes seem rushed not because they’re short, and not because things happen too fast; they seem rushed when the scene doesn’t have enough relevance for the reader. Look for ways to truly inhabit the scene, and it will be not faster, not slower, but right.