Writing Exercise: Adding Spice to a Scene

Writing Exercise: Adding Spice to a Scene

Sometimes we need to add a splash of hot sauce
to a scene—just one ingredient to make it more thrilling or surprising, or even a little
uncomfortable. If a scene feels bland, you can add conflict
to capture your readers’ attention. Conflict takes many forms, but it can be defined
as anything that gets in the way of a character’s happiness or prevents them from achieving
their goals. Here are four flavors you can try out. Flavor One: Bold. The character makes a brave move, putting
themselves in danger. It’s easy for the main character to turn
into a passive observer in a scene where there’s conflict between two other characters. They are passengers of the story rather than
drivers. But by deciding to act, they are creating
a question in the reader’s mind—what will the consequences be? Let’s look at the knife-throwing scene from
Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel Divergent. The protagonist, Tris, is undergoing rigorous
physical training to become a member of Dauntless, a group that values bravery and strength. In this scene, the short-tempered Dauntless
leader, Eric, is teaching them how to throw knives. The underdog of the group, Al, sucks at knife-throwing,
and Eric angrily calls him out, asking his co-leader, Four, to help him teach Al a lesson. Eric tells Al: “You’re going to stand
there as he throws those knives until you learn not to flinch.” The atmosphere is tense as Tris observes the
scene. But then she makes a choice. A quote from Chapter 13 of the audiobook,
as read by Emma Galvin: “I look from Al’s wide, dark eyes to his
shaking hands to the determined set of Four’s jaw. Anger bubbles in my chest, and bursts from
my mouth: ‘Stop it.’ Four turns the knife in his hand, his fingers
moving painstakingly over the metal edge. He gives me such a hard look that I feel like
he’s turning me to stone. I know why. I am stupid for speaking up while Eric is
here; I am stupid for speaking up at all. ‘Any idiot can stand in front of a target,’
I say. ‘It doesn’t prove anything except that
you’re bullying us. Which, as I recall, is a sign of cowardice.’ ‘Then it should be easy for you,’ Eric
says. ‘If you’re willing to take his place.’ The last thing I want to do is stand in front
of that target, but I can’t back down now. I didn’t leave myself the option.” Tris stands against the wall, and Four throws
the knives—one nicks her ear. Afterward, Tris is pissed at Four and accuses
him of being just as bad as Eric. Four implies that he did it to help her, which
leaves Tris confused. The threat of violence hangs heavy as a source
of conflict here, and this scene establishes several objectives: it shows that Eric and
Four are different types of leaders, it reinforces how dangerous the training is, and it showcases
Tris as a defender of the weak. Added tension comes from the fact that Four,
Tris’s love interest, is the one throwing the knives. Four’s reaction at the end of the scene
hints at his protective feelings toward her. Tris’s decision to intervene is what allows
all this to happen. It can be equally powerful for a character’s
lack of boldness to create major consequences. What if Tris considered taking Al’s place,
but then chickened out? Al might’ve flinched into the knife’s
path and gotten himself killed. Tris would’ve regretted not choosing to
act, and that guilt might’ve influenced her later choices. We can see the consequences of inaction in
books like The Kite Runner, where the whole plot revolves around one choice, leading the
protagonist to seek redemption. Since it’s kind of a big spoiler, I won’t
go into the specifics here. Just read the book! So, put your protagonist in a situation where
they can make a bold move. Will they watch an innocent get hurt or try
to protect them? Kill their enemy or show mercy? Lie or tell the truth? These hard choices reveal a character’s
true nature. Flavor Two: Bitter. Someone delivers bad news. The protagonist could be on the giving or
receiving end. In the case of receiving bad news, the main
character might ask their best friend to find out if their crush likes them back—and the
best friend hedges in his response before finally revealing that said crush has actually
got the hots for him, the best friend, and not the protagonist. In the case of giving bad news, the protagonist
might need to tell a mother that her son has died in battle, and he died a traitor. In either case, there is a hopeful question
(“Does she love me back?” “Is my son alive?” ) followed by a devastating answer that’s
even worse than a simple “no.” The best friend struggles to tell the protagonist,
“Not only does your crush not love you, but she actually loves me instead.” The protagonist has to tell that mother, “Not
only is your son dead, but he was also a traitor.” Bad news can come in many shades of horrible. Death is a common one, and when the reader
knows it’s coming but the character doesn’t, it can generate a sense of dread. In The Iliad, one can feel Achilles’ anguish
after he learns of his best friend Patroclus’ death; Hector, his enemy, has slain him and
stolen his armor. Fueled by his intense grief, Achilles rejoins
the battle. Similarly, when Denethor learns of his son
Boromir’s death in The Return of the King, it pushes him further off the deep end, and
his despair drives his attempt to burn his other son alive. Hearing of a loved one’s death often acts
as an impetus for character action, whether for good or ill. Another form of bad news is the threat of
violence or betrayal. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure
Island, the main character Jim must deliver bad news to the ship’s captain—he’s
overheard that some of the crew are planning a mutiny. Stevenson builds anticipation by creating
a slight delay between when Jim finds out about the mutiny and when he tells the captain. From Chapter 12, as performed by voice actor
Stephen Stanton: “Captain Smollett, the squire, and Dr. Livesey
were talking together on the quarterdeck, and, anxious as I was to tell them my story,
I durst not interrupt them openly. While I was still casting about in my thoughts
to find some probable excuse, Dr. Livesey called me to his side. He had left his pipe below, and being a slave
to tobacco, had meant that I should fetch it; but as soon as I was near enough to speak
and not to be overheard, I broke out immediately: ‘Doctor, let me speak. Get the captain and squire down to the cabin,
and then make some pretence to send for me. I have terrible news.’ The doctor changed countenance a little, but
next moment he was master of himself. ‘Thank you, Jim,’ said he quite loudly,
‘that was all I wanted to know,’ as if he had asked me a question.” The dramatic tension comes from the readers
wondering how the other characters will emotionally react and what actions they will take in response
to this news. You can build anticipation by stretching out
that moment until it snaps at the reveal, the greatest point of conflict. Flavor Three: Ghost Pepper. The protagonist makes a mistake that goes
against their own goals. Similar to eating an extremely spicy pepper,
this action is often self-destructive. What if, during a conversation, they accidentally
offend the person they’re talking to—and that person is a crime boss? What if, in the process of learning a new
skill, they injure themselves or someone else—such as their love interest? These mistakes should further complicate the
plot or character relationships. A character can also make mistakes in acting
selfishly and hurting someone else, whether emotionally or physically. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the
narrator Celie makes a selfish choice that she later regrets. A young man named Harpo turns to Celie for
advice about his wife Sofia’s stubborn attitude. Harpo wants to know what “he ought to do
to her to make her mind.” Celie has noticed how Sofia talks freely all
the time and doesn’t fear her husband like Celie does. In her jealousy, Celie tells Harpo, “Beat
her.” So, here is our protagonist telling a man
to beat his wife—a woman that she’s friends with no less. Sofia confronts Celie afterward. Here’s the scene, narrated by the author: “You told Harpo to beat me, she said. No I didn’t, I said. Don’t lie, she said. I didn’t mean it, I said. Then what you say it for? she ast. She standing there looking me straight in
the eye. She look tired and her jaws full of air. I say it cause I’m a fool, I say. I say it cause I’m jealous of you. I say it cause you do what I can’t. What that? she say. Fight. I say. She stand there a long time, like what I said
took the wind out her jaws. She mad before, sad now. She say, All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in
my own house.” This selfish action unveils Celie’s deepest
insecurities—she hates her own inability to fight back against the men in her life
and takes it out on Sofia, another woman. Their discussion about violence showcases
the novel’s larger themes regarding the gender dynamic between husbands and wives. It also creates a moment of kinship between
Celie and Sofia as they try to better understand each other and themselves. Mistakes teach us important lessons about
ourselves, as they do for our characters. Number Four: Sweet and Sour. An ally becomes an obstacle. Conflict between the protagonist and antagonist
is expected, but when two friends butt heads, the scene takes on a different type of friction. I’ll be the first to admit that I love duels
between powerful friends. They might suddenly have clashing goals, or
even if they share the same goal, they could disagree on how to accomplish it. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,
the main trio—Harry, Ron, and Hermione—are rushing to sneak out of the Common Room and
stop someone from stealing the philosopher’s stone. Just as they’re about to leave, they run
into Neville, a fellow Gryffindor and friend who usually lets people walk all over him. This time, however, Neville is adamant about
sticking up for what he believes in. Here’s the clip from Chapter 16 of the audiobook,
with Jim Dale’s narration: “‘You can’t go out,’ said Neville, ‘you’ll
be caught again. Gryffindor
will be in even more trouble.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ said Harry, ‘this
is important.’ But Neville was clearly steeling himself to
do something desperate. ‘I won’t let you do it,’ he said, hurrying
to stand in front of the portrait hole. ‘I’ll—I’ll fight you!’ ‘Neville,’ Ron exploded, ‘get away from
that hole and don’t be an idiot—’ ‘Don’t you call me an idiot!’ said Neville. ‘I don’t think you should be
breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand
up to people!’ ‘Yes, but not to us,’ said Ron in exasperation. ‘Neville, you don’t know
what you’re doing.’ He took a step forward and Neville dropped
Trevor the toad, who leapt out of sight. ‘Go on then, try and hit me!’ said Neville,
raising his fists. ‘I’m
ready!’ Harry turned to Hermione. ‘Do something,’ he said desperately. Hermione stepped forward. ‘Neville,’ she said, ‘I’m really, really
sorry about this.’ She raised her wand. ‘Petrificus Totalus!’ she cried, pointing
it at Neville. Neville’s arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole
body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board. Hermione ran to turn him over. Neville’s jaws were jammed together so he
couldn’t speak. Only his eyes were moving, looking at them
in horror.” The tension in this scene comes from the difficulty
in resolving the conflict. If they were facing off against their nemesis
Draco Malfoy, they wouldn’t have hesitated to petrify him. But because their opponent is an ally, the
choice is much harder, and it also makes the outcome less predictable. To achieve their goal of sneaking out, the
characters are forced to bend their own moral code and hurt a friend. So, if you have a scene where multiple characters
are deciding what to do next, try adding disagreement. Who is the person the protagonist would least
expect to create an obstacle? Make them the obstacle. There’s a caveat here, though—the action
has to make sense for that particular character. You don’t want characters disagreeing just
for the sake of conflict. In the Harry Potter scene, Neville is following
up on the advice Ron gave him about standing up for himself, and Gryffindor is at risk
of losing the House Cup if they get into more trouble—he has clear motivations that fit
his character. This scene also influences the plot later
on, as it’s Neville’s bravery in standing up against his friends that causes Gryffindor
to earn the extra points they need to win the House Cup at the end of the novel. Stepping back, we can see that all these examples
share certain features—namely, they involve the protagonist doing or saying things that
cause confrontation with other characters. Active choices, bad news, mistakes, and tension
between allies often manifest as huge turning points or plot twists. But you can add smaller moments of conflict
like this to keep readers absorbed in the story on a scene-to-scene basis. These aren’t necessarily meant to be used
in every story—just like you wouldn’t use every flavor in every dish! As a writing exercise, identify a “blah”
scene that you’ve already written or are struggling to write, then determine what you
want the reader to take away from that scene. Do you want to showcase the protagonist’s
strengths, or their flaws? Is there any underlying tension between two
characters that could somehow be brought into the open? What does the character dread, and how can
you make that happen? Choose your source of conflict based on the
answer to those questions. In the comments, I’d love to hear about
those moments of delicious conflict you’ve enjoyed cooking up in your work in progress. Whatever you do, keep writing.

42 thoughts on “Writing Exercise: Adding Spice to a Scene

  1. As good as allways. I think I use more the conflict between friends, dont remember ever had used the bad news. By the way it would be so good if you did the videos more a regular thing, I know they are hard to do but you are so good, maybe cause you take your time, but they just help so much.

  2. Brilliant, simply brilliant, Diane! And timely too. I wonder where you got your crystal ball, to be able to divine exactly what we're struggling with in your videos?

  3. I'm glad you used "Treasure Island" from 1990 with Charleton Heston, Christian Bale, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed. Great movie production!

  4. Spice to a Scene:
    i usually add irony to a scene. someone listening to a secret conversion or someone trying to send a message without directly saying it out loud, talking in code so only the clever ones get the message.
    as someone trying to add mystery / questions every few pages, i try to give away the answer before the question is asked, so the questions answer themselves.
    because when the reader starts to theorize, i know they are invested (For better or for worse)

  5. I LOVE YOUR VIDEOS. Please make more.–In my latest WIP, Emily, my protagonist, investigates an attempt on a young girl’s life. In direct contravention of police orders to keep away, she enters the girl’s home and discovers her mother has been murdered. Warned again to “Back off,” and let the police handle the situation, Emily again ignores the warning and re-enters the crime scene. Here she discovers the police have missed some vital evidence, a clue to the killer’s identity. This raises a problem for Emily because the chief investigating officer on the case is her boyfriend, Colm O’Byrne, a Detective Sergeant and current commander of the local police department. Does she ‘fess up and tell all, or hide the information and continue her own investigation? Doing the latter will not only risk putting her relationship with Colm in jeopardy but will also place her in extreme danger. Danger that will take her to the edge of death.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I appreciate the way you've taken the time to make your videos great. You didn't have to include the professional reading of the snippet from Divergent, but you did, and it rocks. Hooray for taking the time make cool stuff!

  7. Literally listened to every single one of your videos today. I really love what you're doing. Could definitely see your channel rising to the top.

  8. My spices are ghost pepper for my fourth episode of the Colorcons: in this episode ruby is settling in an alley with other homeless people. Celina couldn't believe she didn't find a home.(bitter) flashback to 2 days earlier when ruby is getting ready to move into Zack's place with her four friends helping. she was so excited to be living with Zack one problem his dad jason is strict,hot-tempered, and stubborn(sweet and sour) Diego tells ruby to not get on his nerves if she's going to live with Zack. Ruby has to learn how to being nice, gentle, and caring to impress jason.But will her tomboyish nature get the best of her when she meets jason or will she be forced to come clean about her color sprite heritage?

  9. Please could you create a video on how to describe everyday sounds without using the words sounds. It would be so helpful 🙂

  10. Excerpt…

    "You have to stop this craziness," she said as she sipped her tea perched on the edge of her seat, "lives will be ruined, are being ruined. You have to accept that he is gone, and your war can't bring him back."

    He stood up and leaned over the table towards her. His emotional turmoil was palpable, but the half grin on his pretty face and his dancing eyes bespoke more than she could imagine. "You think this is about your boy? There is more going on here than you can fathom." He stood up again and his glass clinked as ice dropped from his palm, and then he poured himself another bourbon; the ice cracked and popped as the alcohol washed over them.

    He picked up his glass and rolled it around, his smile but a memory, "his death was but a legitimizing catalyst for a chain of events already well under way, whether any of us wanted it or not." He sat back down, smelling the booze before washing his mouth with it; a shadow of his half grin reappeared, barely noticeable, but she knew it.

    She gazed at the brother she loved so dearly, and then slowly her eyes fell to her tea. Why did she have to love him so hard? Why did it have to hurt so much? The words were out before she realized she was saying them, barely a whisper, "Your son." Her breath caught as she heard it, staring at her tea willing the the words not to reach his sensitive ears.

    Silence. An eternity, maybe two. This was not how she had planned to tell him, but the callous regard for their boy's tragic death pained her so.

    "Get out!" He breathed.

    She nodded with a defeated sniff, setting the cup on the table as she rose shamefully. Her mouth opened and closed several times, trying to say something she didn't have the voice to say. The courage she needed to look at him was nowhere to be found, so she picked up her purse and took a step, the next one took her away, the next she practically flew.

    Any hope of achieving peace had been utterly dashed with two words. Tears fell, tears, she was not a crier, she was a master damn it; the complete surrender of her strength ran down her face. Why was the door so far away!

    "I'm sorry," she choked pathetically as she finally reached the door. She flung the door open and ran, like a pathetic little girl, she ran not looking back. Her promise never to hurt him, she couldn't get away fast enough. She ran until her heart punished her rib and knives ravaged her lungs, and she kept running.

  11. I am sleep deprived right now, so take my opinions and statements with a grain of salt XD
    I think the spice comes out where a character clashes with the plot he's in. Like… a character who is not meant to speak up, who is a servant, or otherwise suppressed… who desperately NEEDS to speak up in that very moment.
    I, as the author, made the choice to put them in this position, and I chose to force their hand. Whatever they do in response to this pressure, will certainly be spicy in some way.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, I don't feel like you can take a bland scene and artificially add spice to it after the fact, if that makes sense.

    Because in a bland scene, the character is reasonably comfortable in the space the plot gives them. To spice up that scene, I'd need to add a dent to the plot that would otherwise not be there.

    I don't know, maybe that's just me. Or maybe it's the insomnia talking.

    As for a spicy scene… I think the best example I have is the engagement of my protagonists.
    It's a forbidden love, both parties torn apart by rank, status, culture and war itself… But there are lives on the line, honor, pride and the future of an unborn child…
    There were malevolent forces trying to break them, to keep their union from ever happening… and just when it seemed like there would be no hope… the traitor, the servant, the dull warrior speaks up in front of the emperor himself, and asks for the princess' hand in marriage.

    And for some reason the emperor gives his blessing, shocking every single person in the room. There are tears, there is laughter, there is joy… but there is horror too.

  12. I'm mostly a visual learner AND creating a graphic novel, using lessons from all types of writers and writing. I don't know if this was on purpose, but you actually engaged my brain SO much more (than others I watch) with the imaging you have used whilst you speak. It like…reinforces what you're saying and really hold my attention. Your vids are brilliant. Thank you so much for this information, your time and for providing this to us for free. I feel so lucky to live in this day and age where this amount of learning from so many different teachers is possible <3

  13. As for adding "conflict" to a scene, I always try to remind myself that story and conflict are pretty much synonyms. It's one of the reasons why, for example, 12 Angry Men, is a story as much as Star Wars might be – simply because there's always conflict (even when they're pretty much on the opposites on a face value)

    To show how powerful and how necessary it is, just imagine if you take away conflict and just have no tension, all agreeance, and nothing at stake.

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