Scene vs. Scenery

Someone today expressed vindication about all their slice-of-life scenes that have been criticized in the past, with a belief that everyone’s salivating to read about going to brunch now.

Nah.

Criticism of slice-of-life scenes is often phrased as “it’s boring to read about stuff I do every day.” The person offering the criticism is undoubtedly bored, but it’s less because the character is somewhere ordinary and more because the character isn’t doing anything interesting.

The kids at Hogwarts spent a hell of a lot of time in the cafeteria. Was it the floating candles that sustained the interest of millions through book after book full of school lunches? No. It was the scheming that took place at the table.

One scene in Aliens puts Ripley and the marines in another cafeteria. Is that mess hall exempt from being mundane because it’s iiiiiiin spaaaaaaace? No. We pay attention to the game with a knife that reveals one crew member is an android, which has historically been bad news for the human crew.

Innumerable contemporary romances involve restaurant dates. Is it a staple because readers are fascinated by this alien ritual? No. They’re reading for the foreplay or the fighting or the inconvenient confrontation with a third party.

Countless stories place characters at work, at home, at the dry cleaners, in the most mundane of settings, without being labeled “boring slice-of-life scenes.” Hell, Stephen King has at least two novels (Misery and Gerald’s Game) in which the primary character is bedbound for almost the entire story—how dull that bedroom must be!

Nah.

Though a setting can be interesting, that’s not its job. The setting is just the location that supplies the best atmosphere and props for the characters to be interesting, which is their entire job description.

“Going to brunch” isn’t a scene. There may be a goal (get drunk before noon), but what about motivation and conflict? What are the stakes? What’s the failstate? What will change in the story as the result of “going to brunch”?

Oh, you meant the character is drowning her sorrows because the best friend she’s been pining for has just announced his engagement to her sister, and she makes out with a guy on the catering crew who found her ugly-crying in a supply closet, and the friend comes looking for her and gets the wrong idea about the combo of groping and crying, so she makes up a surprise and much-wanted marriage proposal so this innocent stranger doesn’t have to meet the cops, and the friend, genuinely happy for her, drags them both into the middle of his own engagement party to maximize the joy of the occasion, and her sister makes a throat-slitting gesture at her?

That has nothing to do with brunch.

You could change the scenery to a military base, a mining operation in a distant galaxy, or a fairy tale castle and bend all that heartache, bad judgment, and consequence creation to fit because those things define the scene.

Boring scenes are never boring due to where they take place. If the character doesn’t have some more interesting purpose than sipping mimosas, it doesn’t matter if she’s doing it at a space roller derby full of werehyenas—it will still be boring.

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