Writing Powerful Scenes and Stories with Just Two Characters - Writer's Digest

Writing Powerful Scenes and Stories with Just Two Characters

Stranded on a mountaintop? Shipwrecked on a deserted island? Can a story actually thrive with only two characters on the page for long stretches in a novel? Well yes. But it’s tricky. Here are some techniques I learned while writing my new release, Summer by Summer.
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Stranded on a mountaintop? Shipwrecked on a deserted island? Can a story actually thrive with only two characters on the page for long stretches in a novel? Well yes. But it’s tricky. Here are some techniques I learned while writing my new release, Summer by Summer.

When I told my agent I wanted to write a novel about two young adults shipwrecked on an island, she quickly informed me it would be the most challenging book I’ve ever attempted.


I’d already written at least ten novels. I have an international bestseller to my credit. I’m no newbie. I honestly believed writing the story of Summer Mathers and Bray Garrison was going to be easy.

Boy was I wrong.

And boy was she right.

The guest post is by Heather Burch, author of the popular Halflings series. She spent the last seven years in Southern Florida but recently returned to her hometown in the Ozark Mountains. Her books have garnered praise from USA Today, Romantic Times, and Booklist magazine.

Heather Burch-featured

When not working on her latest novel, she can be found hiking in the hills or planning a trip to the beach with her husband, John, who is her hero in every way. Her latest release, Summer by Summer, is available in bookstores now.

When Common Devices are Stripped, One Major Element Remains

As authors, we don’t realize how much we depend on everyday things (I like to call them familiar hooks) to help move a plot along. Going to the store, dropping by a coffee shop, a long drive, laundry. All these things help propel our characters. We also rely on secondary characters, be they foils for our protagonist or mentors.

Now, take all that away. No store, no phone, no interaction. Is it a challenge? Yes. But we’re authors. Challenge is what we do!

[Learn the 5 Essential Story Ingredients You Need to Write a Better Novel]

When two characters are utterly alone, they better have more going on than just survival, just meeting basic needs. Of course, there will be basic needs and storyline to accomplish those tasks, but the reader already expects that! How are you going to compel that reader to … keep reading? How are you going to keep them glued to their seat, holding their breath, neglecting their families until the resolution and the turning of the last page?

It’s all done with tension. Tension must be maintained because in a story with only two characters, there’s no familiar hooks to hang the reader on. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]


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Tension’s Many Layers

I like to think of tension in layers.

Layer 1: The obvious and immediate need for food, fire, shelter or whatever external struggle your characters are in. Maybe it’s not survival, maybe they mistakenly ended up in a mountain cabin together. Fine, but Layer 1 is all about that external push and pull.

Layer 2: You have two people. Which one is your main character? Layer 2 deals with that character’s internal fear, determination and/or desire within the scene. In Summer by Summer, my heroine is the main character.

Layer 3: This layer deals with my hero. His fear, determination, and/or desire within the scene. Remember, these are specific to the scene. Of course, your two characters need an overall character arc, but we are breaking this down scene by scene. This will likely tie into their overall internal goal and internal conflict, but it will be unique in each and every scene.

[Here are 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters]

Layer 4: This is my favorite. The CLASH between these two characters. Think of your favorite books. I bet one comes to mind where there is a real and intense clash between the two main characters. Never underestimate the power of the clash!

Now we put it all together. You’ve got powerful scenes people will be compelled to read and read and read. Can you put all four layers in every scene? You should try to. That should be the ultimate goal. Everything you write will be richer, more vivid, more powerful if you apply these layers. Good luck and happy writing.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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