With so much emphasis in fiction writing put upon the importance of conflict, a seemingly apt question is, “How can you write interesting happy scenes?”
This was the question recently posed to me by Elena Singleterry, who wrote:
If possible, I would like to ask a question about writing a happy scene. In my book, the plot calls for a number of such scenes (every time the two lovers reunite, which does not happen often, but does happen throughout the book). My characters are not reuniting in a way where they are enemies becoming lovers or anything like that, but already as lovers, so these scenes are mostly dialogues and happy times together—so no real suspense or conflict there.
There is a conflict that unfolds in between their get-togethers and serves as an external force (such as, heroine’s complicated family situation), but because their get-togethers happen out of direct reach of the external force, their meetings are largely conflict-free. The characters spend these precious days talking, exploring foreign cities (a different city for each of the meetings), getting to know one another more and more. These meetings are meant to show their compatibility and discovery of self, of themselves as two parts of this couple, and the physical/cultural world around them, not as a major source of conflict.
If you feel it would be of interest to your other readers, could you please give a few suggestions on how to make happy scenes engaging?
This is an apt question. Not only are some stories designed to be “happy stories,” but almost any type of story, even the darkest, will feature at least a few happy scenes, for the sake of contrast if nothing else. So if conflict is purported to be the secret to engaging reader attention and keeping them entertained, how can you write interesting happy scenes?
The simple answer, of course, is that readers are not engaged solely by conflict in a scene. Conflict is often too narrowly interpreted as “confrontation,” rather than as something requiring the characters to evolve their goals and their methods for achieving those goals. More than that, as we explored in last week’s post about “8 Different Types of Scenes,” conflict isn’t the only element in fiction that ensures reader entertainment. In fact, variety has a great deal to do with that entertainment.
That said, happy scenes do pose special challenges. This is because they don’t always have access to several of the standard dramatic techniques used to maintain the plot’s forward momentum and introduce the little (or big) surprises that keep a reader’s brain engaged.
6 Tips to Write Interesting Happy Scenes
Today, I’m going to offer six tips for anchoring your story’s happy scenes as some of its best scenes.
But, first, a caveat. In addition to a misunderstanding of conflict, one of the primary reasons writers might struggle to write interesting happy scenes is that they are confusing “happy” with “passive.” However, happy moments can and should contribute to moving the plot just as much as difficult moments. For example, consider two characters getting engaged. In most instances, this will be an unequivocally happy moment while also creating definite change in the characters’ lives—and thus moving the plot.
Quieter happy scenes are also important, but should be considered within the overall shape of scene structure and plot structure (both of which I talk about in my book Structuring Your Novel and its accompanying workbook). As we talked about last week, low-key happy moments can often find a comfortable home in the “reaction” or “sequel” half of a scene.
There are occasional instances in a story in which it is appropriate to include scenes in which nothing happens that directly moves the plot. However, those instances are rare and only appropriate when the author is consciously creating a particular effect (see the section in last week’s post about “vignettes,” as well as this post about “incidents” and “happenings”).
The following six tips can be used in any type of scene, but the intent should be to weave these scenes into the story in a way that impacts the plot and/or character growth.
1. Ask, “What’s Entertaining in this Scene?”
This step is so simple and yet surprisingly easy to overlook. If you’re doubting whether your happy scene will engage readers, just take a step back and identify what in this scene is designed to be entertaining? What entertains you about this scene? Why are you enjoying writing it? And if you were reading/watching it, what would you enjoy about the experience?
Although the throughline of solid scene structure will contribute greatly to readers feeling pulled into a story’s momentum, by itself this isn’t necessarily what entertains readers. You can put your characters through all the motions of proper scene structure and still write dull narrative. So consider what about this scene is designed to engage, entertain, interest, surprise, or delight your audience. The main weight of entertainment could be borne by any of the following elements:
Many readers find dialogue to be the most interesting part of a story. (Admission: if I’m reading strictly for pleasure, I will sometimes skim lengthy narrative sections until I find quotation marks.) Dialogue is often conflict-driven, but even just friendly repartee, when it’s quick-witted, is a pleasure to experience.
- Love scenes
For romance novels, this is where it’s all at. Note that, usually, these scenes carry huge impact in the story and most definitely drive the plot forward.
Just the sheer sweetness or adorableness of certain moments can be all the entertainment required. Sometimes watching a character do something unbearably nice can be the best moment in a story. (Or puppies. You could always include puppies.)
- The Happiness of Released Tension
The release after a moment of intense conflict can be even more engaging than the conflict itself, as we watch the characters react and adjust—perhaps in ways that weren’t emotionally available a moment ago. The point of conflict is to change something in the story; the moment after is when readers get to experience those changes.
There are those special people who don’t have to do anything interesting in order to be interesting. We literally would watch them read the phone book. In written fiction, charisma usually comes down to strong dimensionality within the characters, allowing them to act in ways that are cohesive to their personalities and yet still surprising. Strong narrative tone also plays a huge role.
Chemistry is charisma happening between characters. It’s the magnetic push-pull between people, in which everything flows and yet nothing can be taken for granted. I’ve written a whole post about character chemistry here.
When setting becomes “a character of its own,” then it is possible for a story to entertain readers with scenes in which characters do little more than wander through these evocative places. Needless to say, it is crucial to avoid self-indulgence at all costs in such instances.
Writing, in itself, is entertaining. Good prose can engage readers even when not describing anything inherently interesting. Of course, understanding your genre’s conventions and your readers’ tastes becomes important when relying on prose as the primary entertainment factor in a scene. But as so many amazing literary novels have shown us, the words sometimes matter more than the subject.
Humor can carry a scene all by itself. If readers are laughing, you’ve got ’em. However, humor is certainly not the easiest element on this list to execute and usually works best in concert with other elements to support it.
Poignancy is the melancholy cousin of humor. Instead of eliciting a chuckle, it’s more likely to touch our heartstrings, if only subtly. Irony is often the most powerful way to evoke poignancy and to keep it pertinent to the rest of the plot. For example, creating happy scenes that contrast a difficult overall situation can bring the urgency of the main plot challenge into starker focus.
2. Double Down on the Scene’s Emotional Arc
Once you’ve identified what elements within your happy scene will bring the most entertainment value, double-check the scene’s emotional arc. As mentioned above, just because a scene doesn’t strongly feature conflict doesn’t mean nothing is happening. This is true even in scenes that feature little to no external action. Your characters may spend the entire scene comfortably sitting on a park bench throwing bread to ducks, but as long as there is internal change—aka, an emotional arc—then the scene will still have progressed the plot.
- How is the character’s mood or outlook different at the end of the scene from the beginning?
- What emotion begins the scene?
- What different emotion ends the scene?
3. Check on the Scene’s Forward Momentum or Throughline
Although “conflict” gets most of the limelight, what is really being asked for is “change.” This is what it means to move the plot. If something is changing in your scene that affects the scenes to follow, you can be sure it’s moving the plot.
When writing a happy scene (or any type of scene), ask yourself: “What happens in this scene that changes something for the characters?” This could be a big change that affects where the characters are in the setting or their proximity to the plot goal. It could also be as simple as a bit of new information that shows another person in a new light. In order to truly move the plot, this information will not be incidental, but will affect how the character chooses to act in future scenes.
4. Examine the Scene for Complexity and Subtext
Often, when a writer is struggling to make a happy scene interesting, the problem isn’t that the scene is happy, but rather that it is too simplistic. If your characters go to the beach to get ice cream and watch the sunset and it’s the best day ever, the end—that may be happy, but it’s also likely to feel flat.
Look for ways you can add layers of nuance and meaning to your story. How can this happy scene become a contrasting layer in a larger image, thereby adding to the story’s overall complexity? As mentioned, irony is a powerful tool toward this end. Also powerful is the potential mentioned in Elena’s original question and description of the story, at the top of the article. The description talks about how the characters’ happy moments are stolen against the backdrop of a difficult family situation. Even by itself, that’s complexity. These happy moments are not just happy moments; they are part of a larger conversation which they both inform and are informed by.
By the same token, dig deep for the subtext in even the happiest of scenes. What is being said on the surface of this scene? And what’s being said beneath the surface of this happiness? You may even find multiple contrasting messages all under the surface of the same scene.
5. Make Sure the Scene Is Bringing Something New to the Story
Happy scenes can often be reaction/sequel scenes in which characters integrate something that just happened from a more conflict-heavy segment previously. However, don’t forget that every piece of a story should contribute to the overall whole. This is important not just for structurally advancing the plot, but also because a sense that the story is progressing is what keeps readers engaged. They want to experience something new in every scene.
The good news is that if you’re aware of how your scene is changing the plot, then you are also probably aware of how the story has shifted enough to offer something new to readers (whether it’s a new character or setting, a new emotion or dynamic, or new information or perspective). Again, happiness doesn’t equal passivity. Happiness can include changes that are leisurely and contented, but it can also indicate changes that are hectic and deliriously joyous.
6. Make the Characters Earn It
Finally, one of the best tips for keeping readers engaged in your happy scenes is making sure they don’t feel self-indulgent. The truth is we all want to see characters happy. Happy characters usually make us happy. But if the happiness feels unearned within a story, it can strike a false note. Unearned happiness feels unrealistic and, ultimately, as if the author is either trying and failing at fan-service and/or indulging their own unearned desires to see their characters happy.
The happiest scenes in a story are often hard-earned by the characters. If you’re going to give them a piece of heaven, put them through a little hell first. The poignancy will be that much sweeter—not to mention more impactful to your plot and your character’s emotional arc.
Emotional scenes are some of the most enjoyable, both to write and to read or watch. How to write interesting happy scenes? As with all of writing, it really just comes to writing these scenes as authentically as possible, believing in the happiness you’re portraying, and showcasing it as part of the story’s larger pattern of cause and effect.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your best tip for how to write interesting happy scenes? Tell me in the comments!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland