One Critical Problem You’ll Find in Boring Scenes (And How to Fix It)


Are your scenes interesting, or will they bore your reader? You can quickly spot potentially boring scenes by answering one simple question:

What’s literally happening in your scene?

There are many, many possible right answers—but there is a wrong answer, one that will lead to scenes that sag. Here’s how to spot and fix that common pitfall.

One of my favorite parts of my job as an editor is the opportunity to analyze and edit and critique writers’ scenes. (In fact, you can get my feedback on your scenes here!)

That’s my sweet spot. It brings me so much joy.

I find it so much fun getting to dig into a single scene of a story and really explore the nitty gritty of what is happening there: what is working, what is not working, where there are opportunities to develop, how this scene contributes to the larger whole, and how this scene conveys a tiny piece of the larger story really, really well.

I love all of it. Scene critiques are just so much fun to me.

So anytime I can, I love to dive in with a writer and critique their scene.

Many Scenes, One Frequent Problem

Now, since I analyze and critique so many scenes, I’ve noticed some patterns, some common problems many writers encounter when they’re first starting to write or edit their scenes.

And here, I’m going to share one of those common problems with you.

The great thing about this problem is, it’s simple and straightforward. It’s not too tough to recognize in your writing, and there’s a simple fix. It’s not always an easy fix, but it is simple.

And when you do fix it, you immediately make your story so much more interesting and fun to read.

So in this article, I’m going to walk you through the first thing I look for when I’m editing scenes. I’ll show you what it looks like when it’s working. I’ll show you the biggest mistake I see writers make here, something you can watch for in your own editing process. And then I’ll show you how to fix it.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

The First Question I Ask of Every Scene

When I edit a scene, I start by asking a lot of questions about the scene.

In fact, I have a worksheet with a whole list of important questions I use to analyze and edit scenes. You can get that worksheet by entering your email in the form below:

That worksheet is one of my most popular resources, and with good reason—it’s at the core of the work I do as an editor, and it’s so helpful when it comes to editing scenes.

And the first question on that worksheet is this:

What’s literally happening in the scene?

It’s that simple. What’s happening? What literal actions are on the page? What are the characters doing?

Now, probably lots of things are happening in a scene. A scene is usually somewhere between 1000 and 3000 words. That’s a lot of words, a lot of space for loads of characters to do loads of things.

But don’t get distracted by all the little details happening in every line. Instead, sum up the overall action of the scene into one short sentence.

Example: Red, White and Royal Blue

Let me give you an example. I’ll use the first scene of Red, White and Royal Blue, a romance novel by Casey McQuiston. You can read the opening scene here.

First, I’ll summarize the scene in a few sentences:

Alex, First Son of the United States, is in his room working on a research paper when his sister June comes in with tabloids. She reads him the headlines and they settle their bets on when the tabloids would mention him next. Then June asks what he’s wearing to the royal wedding tomorrow and Alex complains about how he doesn’t want to go.

So that’s what’s happening in the scene. When I wrote that summary, I paid close attention to the details:

  • The things that Alex and June are discussing (the tabloid headlines),
  • What they do with that information (settle their bets),
  • And where the tabloids send their conversation (the royal wedding).

Now, let’s zoom out and sum that up into one sentence that gets at the gist of the literal action happening in the scene. Here’s that sentence:

Alex and June read tabloids together.

Simple, straightforward, pithy. It’s a quick little summary of the action in the whole scene. What’s literally happening in this opening scene? Alex and June read tabloids.

Example: Fourth Wing

Now, let’s look at another example. This is the first chapter of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, a romantic fantasy. You can read the first chapter here.

Here’s my long summary of the whole chapter:

Violet and her sister Mira argue with their mother, trying to convince her not to send Violet to be trained as a dragon rider, a training she likely won’t survive.

Then, Mira helps Violet pack for training and gives her clothing, equipment, and advice that might keep her alive.

And once she’s packed, Mira walks Violet to the tower where new conscripts cross into the war college, and Violet signs her name, climbs the tower, and steels herself for the dangerous walk across a high parapet into the Riders Quadrant.

So that’s what happens in chapter one. At this point, I have a choice: should I treat this chapter as one scene or as several scenes? And honestly, it could go either way.

If I look at this chapter as one scene, I’d sum up the literal action like this:

Violet prepares to cross the parapet and join the Riders’ Quadrant.

Or I could break it up into several scenes, smaller moments that each have their own arc of change that contribute to the larger whole. In that case, here’s what I’d say if I divided this chapter into three scenes and described the literal action of each:

Violet and Mira argue with their mother.

Mira helps Violet pack.

And Violet joins the line of conscripts to cross the parapet.

Describe the Literal Action in One Sentence

So this is the first step in my scene analysis, the first thing I’m doing when I pick up a new scene. I’m asking, what is the literal action in the scene? What’s happening?

Alex and June read tabloids together.

Violet and Mira argue with their mother.

Mira helps Violet pack.

Violet joins the line of conscripts to cross the parapet.

In Every Scene, Something Happens

Now, here’s what I want you to notice about all these sentences, about all these scenes, about all these literal actions:

In every scene, something happens.

The characters do something. There’s a literal, physical activity that they’re doing.

Reading tabloids.



Joining the line.

Preparing to cross.

Specific physical, literal actions that characters are taking. Interesting external action happening in every scene.

The Problem: When Nothing Happens

You know what’s not on this list? The literal action I haven’t mentioned?


In none of these scenes would the reader open the book, flip through the pages, and say, “The main thing that happened in this scene is that the protagonist thought.”

Thinking is not interesting external action.

And yet when I read scenes writers send me to edit, so often I find that the external action of the scene could be best summed up as,

“The protagonist thinks.”

It’s Tempting to Write About Characters Thinking

Why is that? Why do we sometimes write scenes where the only thing that’s happening is the character thinking?

Honestly, I get it. See, the thing that matters about each of those scenes I listed isn’t really the literal, external action.

What matters in the opening scene of Red, White and Royal Blue?

It’s not the tabloids—though that’s excellent foreshadowing of what’s to come later in the book.

But the real point of this scene is that Alex doesn’t like Prince Henry and doesn’t want to go to the royal wedding.

What matters in the opening scene of Fourth Wing, no matter whether you read the first chapter as one scene or several?

There’s a lot of movement here, many arguments and conversations and nerve-wracking approach to the parapet.

But the real point here is that Violet wants to be a scribe, not a dragon rider. She’s afraid that she’s going to die in training, or even before she makes it to training. But although she’s reluctant, she’s determined not to fail.

Notice that all those things that matter are all internal. They’re our protagonists’ thoughts and feelings. The stuff going on inside their heads.

In fact, you could absolutely write an opening scene of each of these novels that conveys all that important information, all the stuff that really matters, and where all the characters do is sit around and think.

Imagine Alex sitting on his bed, staring out the window, thinking about how much he doesn’t want to go to the royal wedding. No June in the room, no tabloids, no research paper—just a thousand-yard stare and a lot of deep thoughts.

Or imagine Violet writing in a journal, processing her feelings about how badly she wishes she could be a scribe, but how she feels trapped, unable to escape from the plans her mother has made for her. No argument with her mom, no packing, no pep talk from her sister or terrifying climb to the perilous parapet walk. Just pouring out her feelings in a diary.

Those scenes would still include all that important internal information, the stuff that really matters to the characters’ arcs over the course of the story.

And also, those scenes would be really boring.

No External Action = Boring Scenes

When we read books, we want each scene to matter, to contribute something to the whole, to the character’s development and journey through the story.

And also, we want each scene to be interesting. We want it to have exciting external conflict. We want to see something happen.

To see characters doing things.

Making decisions.

Taking action.

Interacting with their environment and the people around them.

We’re not interested in characters sitting around having thoughts. We’re interested in characters getting up and doing things.

The internal stuff, your character’s thoughts and feelings, it really matters to your story. At its core, that’s what your story is truly about.

But the internal stuff alone isn’t interesting. We have to experience it in the context of external action. Your characters must do things.

How to Fix a Scene Where Your Characters Just Think

So what should you do if you’re editing a scene and you realize, wait a second, the only thing that happens here is that my character thinks?

The good news is, like I promised earlier, there’s a simple solution. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy solution. But it is simple.

Your task is to create interesting external action for your character in the scene.

In other words, find something for them to do.

This is a great time for brainstorming. Make a list of a dozen ideas. Don’t stop at the first idea that comes to mind—dig to see what else you can find.

Here are some questions to prompt your brainstorming:

  • What does your character want in this scene? What’s their goal? What do they want to accomplish in the next 3000 or so words?
  • What does another character want from them?
  • What happens right before this scene? What happens right after this scene?
  • What’s a problem your character faces in this scene? The scene before? The scene after?
  • What’s this scene really about?

As you brainstorm, don’t be afraid to make radical changes to the scene.

Maybe rather than sitting in a chair and thinking, your character stands up and does something.

Or maybe they’re in a different room. Or with a different group of people. Or you shift the scene to happen an hour before, or a day later.

Sometimes you can take a scene where a character sits around thinking, add in an action, and it works.

And sometimes, rather than trying to shoehorn action in, it’s more effective to shake everything up and imagine a completely different scene.

Remember, You Can Change Absolutely Anything

If that sounds a little scary to you, I have a great episode to recommend. Go check out one of my favorite episodes of Your Next Draft: 3 Simple Steps to Edit Absolutely Anything in Your Novel.

In it, you’ll hear a great example of how a writer and I troubleshoot this exact problem: at a critical moment in her scene, her character is thinking rather than acting. We brainstorm a lot of different ideas for actions her character can take.

And we talk about what it looks like to shake everything up and imagine something completely different—and how fun, creative, and freeing that process is.

Your Turn: What’s Literally Happening in Your Scenes?

So that’s my tip for you today.

When you’re editing a scene of your novel, start by asking:

What’s literally happening in this scene?

What’s happening? What literal actions are on the page? What are the characters doing?

Aim to sum it all up in one sentence:

  • Alex and June read tabloids together.
  • Violet and Mira argue with their mother.
  • Mira helps Violet pack.
  • Violet joins the line of conscripts to cross the parapet.

Keep a sharp eye out for any times when the sentence you write is some variation of, “My character thinks.”

And whenever you do discover scenes where the main action in the scene is your character thinking, welcome that as a creative challenge. Now you get to brainstorm what the literal action can become.

See if you can find something more exciting, more interesting, more active, that you can create for your characters to do instead of simply thinking.

Your readers will have a lot more fun when you include interesting literal action on every page.

Want more guidance on how to edit your scenes? Be sure to grab my Scene Analysis Worksheet. This includes all the questions I use to edit amazing scenes. You can get it for free by entering your email in the form below:

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