What does it mean when an agent or editor tells you nothing happens in a scene? I mean, there’s at least one character in the scene. Why do industry professionals think nothing is happening?
With some scenes, it’s pretty obvious. When you take a week or two away from your work and go back to that scene, you can see that nothing really is happening. These are the scenes where the character goes grocery shopping, and that’s it. Or he makes a meal and eats. YAWN. Or she gets up and gets ready. Or he drives from Point A to Point B, describing everything he sees as he goes. Or she thinks, and thinks, and thinks…
With other scenes, it might not be as obvious. For example, when you have two characters talking about something that happened in their past because you need the reader to know their backstory. If that’s all they’re doing, and nothing else happens, you probably have a backstory dump. It’s a good idea to use dialogue to show backstory instead of telling us about it. BUT, it still needs to be layered in. You shouldn’t have pages and pages of characters talking about their past because the main story has stopped. The reader is waiting for the characters to finish their conversation and get the real story going again.
Another type of scene that’s hard to peg is when characters are doing things and saying things, but what they’re doing and saying, as cute as they might be, aren’t moving the story forward. In other words, Joey and Nick might be having a blast doing cartwheels in the kitchen and laughing, but there’s no conflict. Other than the reader being able to see that these two kids get along well, he isn’t learning anything that will help advance the story. Now, if you really like this scene, you can combine it with another or add to it to make it work. For example, the boys might still be goofing around in the kitchen, but maybe one of them knocks over his mom’s antique vase and it breaks. There’s conflict. How the boys react and what they plan to do next is what will help advance the story and show us their character.
Beware of scenes that function only as entertainment. Sometimes, a scene might be well written and your friends and family might love it, but if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal something about the character’s arc, it probably doesn’t belong. This can happen when a character does something out of place. Even if the scene works on its own, it doesn’t work with the rest of the story. For example, when an intruder breaks into Jen’s house, she grabs a gun and shoots the guy. BUT, up until now, Jen has always been afraid of guns and against their use. Why would she suddenly have a gun AND know how to use it? So, while the scene works on its own—woman protects herself by shooting intruder—it doesn’t work in this story because Jen is acting out of character.
Or maybe the scene shows that Bob is really good at stealing jewelry. But, we already know that because we’ve already seen him steal jewelry in another scene. So, unless something new happens in this scene, something that will complicate his journey, we don’t need to see another scene like it.
A scene only belongs in your story if it moves the story forward and/or shows a part of the character’s arc.
What are some other examples of scenes where nothing happens?