In the last blog post I suggested that you not hedge away from placing characters in uncomfortable situations because that is exactly the kind of scene your readers will be hungry for.

And in this post, I’m going to give you companion advice: skip the mundane scenes.

“Oh, Eric,” I can hear some of you saying. “You can’t mean that, absolutely! Why, a story needs the every-day scenes to illuminate the world of the story, to present the setting, to ground the reader in what is normal so when something new happens they understand it!”

Well. Maybe.

Except, I believe good writing should be performing on multiple levels at all times. Good dialogue gives us more than just the words the characters say: it opens a window into who they really are, what they really believe, and what they may be hiding or denying. Good description doesn’t just point out random items in the world of the story and paint a word picture of what they look like; description should be specific and intentional, and also tell us about the characters, further the plot (though, possibly, indirectly), or accentuate the theme of the work.

Similarly, a good plot point should do more than just pass time in the character’s world. Mundane tasks, if they stay mundane, run a risk of doing only one thing: passing time. Even worse, they may fall into the deadly trap of being written for the reader, rather than for the story.

Characters drinking coffee (or some similar activity) and talking are the kinds of scenes that often slip into a sort of literary cliche. Such scenes require careful consideration by the writer to make sure they serve a legitimate, and literary, function.
Characters drinking coffee (or some similar activity) and talking are the kinds of scenes that often slip into a sort of literary cliche. Such scenes require careful consideration by the writer to make sure they serve a legitimate, and literary, function.

The most common culprit is the coffee scene. Two characters, sharing a beverage (often, it is coffee or tea or a beer after work…whatever) and talking. The point of such a scene is supposed to be to take a mundane event and present it as a way to do one of two things: demonstrate the daily life of the character as a contrast to what is about to come, or to have the characters talk so that the reader can gain some insight that there is no other way to present.

Both of these stated goals are filled with possible pitfalls. Both of these kinds of scenes can easily fall into cliche. Both can feel stilted and fumbling to the reader because if either of these things is the only reason for the scene, then the scene really doesn’t belong there.

This is advice coming from a man who’s working on a novel with a LOT of coffee drinking in it. A lot. Too much, honestly.

So this is advice I’ve had to tell myself, and will continue to have to remind myself of.

There are a few ways I know of to avoid the “coffee scene” becoming a cliche.

  • Make sure the conversation is a reflection of what these two characters would actually say in this situation. The very bare-minimum thing you can do for a coffee scene (or any other such scene that risks becoming “for the reader” rather than feeling like an organic part of the story) is be merciless in your editing of the dialogue, making sure each word is a word THAT character would really say in that situation. To do this, we have to examine the inner and outer lives of the characters involved and have a solid understanding of both their individual past history, and the shared history between them.
  • Determine if the scene is really needed. Ask yourself if there is a different way to accomplish the same end result, and if so, is the coffee scene really a better choice. You may decide to keep any number of mundane scenes, for a variety of reasons, but you should only do so when you rule out other possibilities.
  • Make the mundane more than mundane. This can happen in a variety of ways. Something can upset the status quo and the characters have to react to that. The mundane can be a shield for rising, unspoken tension, so that the coffee talk is really only covering up the simmering feud between the characters. Or, maybe, as I suggested in the earlier post, the character’s reaction to what SHOULD be a mundane action can demonstrate that this character is somehow out of synch with the world around him. In other words, make the mundane situation uncomfortable for the characters.
  • Make sure the scene is doing more than just one thing. Don’t settle for a scene that only serves to illuminate the setting. Even worse: Don’t settle for a conversation which serves ONLY to give backstory or off-page details.

For me, I had to employ all of these techniques. There were conversations that had to be changed because the characters were talking at the reader, rather than each other. There were scenes that I cut, in favor of taking these two characters away from the front porch and into other parts of their world. There were things added to raise the tension, to disrupt the pattern, to cause friction. And I even added a layer of unstated conflict to the story, by adding a coffee-related sub plot. In the story, the protagonist’s friend is trying to teach her how to make coffee with a french press, rather than a drip coffee pot, and the protagonist’s inability to master the new method is a symbol of the inadequacy she feels in comparison to her friend. The mundane act of making coffee becomes a test of her worthiness as a woman (in her mind) and she fails it. Repeatedly.

As with all “rules of writing” this isn’t a rule at all. “Skip the mundane” is an admonishment that is good advice, but there are times it should be ignored, and ways in which a good writer can make the mundane look brand new. When you can give the reader a scene she’s seen a hundred times before, and leave her with some new perspective on it, then you have a successful scene.

Show Us Your Character, Part Two: Skip the Mundane