#93: Writing Scenes of Boredom Without Being Boring

Dear Story Nurse,

Advice I have heard: “Skip writing the boring part.”

Scene I’m trying to write: the boring part, for both characters and author—in which much essential information is conveyed that I’m not sure how to show any other way. (In fact the very boring-ness of the scene to the PoV character is one of those essential points!)

Predictable problem: stalled writing.

Glib solution: skip writing the boring part. Come back and fill it in later, if the important bits really can’t be conveyed any other way.

Next problem: I write linearly. My brain stalls ridiculously if I try to write more than a vague outline of anything that’s further ahead than the next scene the reader ought to encounter… and the next scene the reader ought to encounter is the boring part.

Actual solution: ???

Thanks 🙂

—Bored Butterfly (they/them)

Dear Bored Butterfly,

One-size-fits-all writing advice never really does, and this is a classic example. It’s also an example of how generally good advice can become much less good when squeezed into a tweetable sentence or catchy phrase. Skipping the boring parts doesn’t mean you should leave out the information you intended to convey. It means you should look for ways to convey that information that excite and engage you, because that will excite and engage the reader.

Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k is often cited as one of the origin points of the “skip the boring part” advice. Here’s what she says in her original blog post (which she expanded into the 2k to 10k book), emphasis mine:

If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again… simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.

This discovery turned out to be a fantastic one for my writing. I trashed and rewrote several otherwise perfectly good scenes, and the effect on the novel was amazing. Plus, my daily wordcount numbers shot up again because I was always excited about my work. Double bonus!

I’ve bolded two key points there that the pithy “skip the boring parts” misses. One is that you don’t just trash the scene immediately; you go dumpster-diving, looking for what in the scene is interesting or has the potential to be interesting, and then expand on that. The other is that you can change the scene, though throwing it out is always an option if changing it doesn’t work.

All I know about your scene is that there’s a lot of information in it, and that your character is bored. Those two elements don’t have to be linked—that is, the thing that’s boring your character doesn’t have to be the part of the scene that’s conveying information to your readers. Even if they are being forced to sit through a lecture on a topic that you want your readers to know about, you don’t have to show the lecture itself; instead, show the character’s reaction to and thoughts about the lecture, interspersed with other information. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

“Captain Frout, you’ll lead the charge…”

General Snurg’s droning voice was putting me to sleep. I blinked and tried to stay focused. I knew he was going to share important elements of our strategy, and how was I supposed to summarize those and sneak them across the border to the opposing army if I dozed off instead of listening? But I had stayed up too late carousing with the 13th Battalion—those ladies knew how to party—and only grabbed a few short hours of sleep. It wasn’t enough to keep me going through Snurg’s slow recitation. My eyelids fluttered shut.

“…and after we breach the walls…”

I sat up, suddenly alert. This was the first I’d heard of siege engines. I hadn’t seen any in the encampment at all. Maybe they were waiting somewhere else. Or perhaps Snurg wanted us to make battering rams, or use explosives… I vowed to pay closer attention.

It’s clear that the protagonist is bored, bored, bored. But we’re still getting information, because bored people’s minds wander, and wandering minds can think about all sorts of interesting things.

You can also use humor to liven up a scene of boredom. Consider Ben Stein’s iconic scenes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Stein’s “Bueller? Bueller?” will probably be quoted by generations of people who haven’t even seen the film, but for your purposes, I think the second scene is more useful. Stein is lecturing on 20th-century U.S. economics and it is magnificently boring. There are frequent cuts away to reaction shots of students who are bored into a stupor. These reactions become more and more exaggerated throughout the scene, which is capped off by Stein squeaking chalk across the blackboard and waking up someone who has fallen so thoroughly asleep that they’re drooling on their desk. Nothing in Stein’s dialogue is meant to educate the viewer about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act; instead we’re treated to a beautiful parody of just how terrible school is so we can sympathize with Ferris’s desire to ditch it and go have an adventure. The reaction shots are crucial: a full unbroken eighty seconds of Stein’s deadpan delivery would be too much to bear, and the students add to the humor by being even more bored than the viewer is. Those eighty seconds now carry the weight of the cumulative awfulness of being in Stein’s class five days a week for most of a year.

The multiple reactions are more evocative than a single person’s inner monologue or glazed face would be. If your narration is stuck in the head of the bored person and you can’t find a way to make that not boring, consider switching to another POV, someone who notices the bored person being bored and has some thoughts or feelings about that. Maybe being in the head of the person giving the boring infodumpy speech and knowing it’s not going over well would make it more interesting to the reader.

One of the many things that makes infodumps boring is that they exist separate from any character’s emotional connection to the information that’s being conveyed. But boredom is an emotion, and characters can also have feelings about or around being bored—annoyance, embarrassment, anxiety over possibly being caught yawning, anger at their time being wasted, frustration over their difficulty staying focused—so make use of that. You don’t generate empathy with a bored character by boring the reader; you do it by humanizing the character and the experience of boredom, encouraging the reader to recall their own past experiences of being bored while keeping them engaged in the present story.

Definitely follow Aaron’s advice and find the parts of the scene that hook you. There’s got to be something worthwhile in there. Draw it out and use it to buffer the information overload. And, as always, don’t sweat all of this too much while you’re drafting; if you’re blocked, it might be best to write a boring scene that unblocks you, and come back to fix it later when you’ll have a better overview of the story and perhaps be able to identify  other ways for that vital information to be shared.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#93: Writing Scenes of Boredom Without Being Boring

  1. In the novel “Sphere,” there is an early scene where Norman, the protagonist, has been dragged out to the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean for a military project of which he knows nothing. He’s out of his depth (in more ways than one) as a psychologist. He’s exhausted from his long trip. He has no idea what’s happening.

    And there’s a long briefing through which he cannot stay awake. The omniscient narrator describes him as unable to take in the highly technical language of the briefing, but as it continues, the reader begins to feel a sense of unease because of the very alien environment to which Norman is about to go—under the sea, a place as foreboding and dangerous as any on Earth. Some of this seeps through to Norman in his drowsy state.

    So he’s bored, and he’s hopelessly sleepy, but there’s this gnawing worry that he’s in over his head, and it prepares the reader for what’s coming. It’s stylistically wonderful. (Crichton employs a similar effect in “Timeline,” but it seems less effective there.)

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