Skip to main content

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 Heather Burch learned while writing her new release, Summer by Summer.
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.

(Not Just a Side Dish: How to Create Supporting Roles in Fiction)

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.

What?

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.

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!

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. 

Summer by Summer by Heather Burch

Summer by Summer by Heather Burch

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

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.

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.

Character Development Creating Memorable Characters

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range. Create characters readers will love and develop a strong point of view for your fiction book today!

Click to continue.

What Is Pastiche in Literature, and Why Is Sherlock Holmes Perfect for It?

What Is Pastiche in Literature, and Why Is Sherlock Holmes Perfect for It?

What has made Sherlock Holmes so adaptable and changeable throughout the character’s original inception? Author Timothy Miller explains.

How to Write Through Grief and Find Creativity

How to Write Through Grief and Find Creativity

When author Diana Giovinazzo found herself caught in the storm of grief, doing what she loved felt insurmountable. Here, she shares how she worked through her grief to find her creativity again.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Our Brand-New Digital Guide, 6 WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce our new “Get Published in 2022” digital guide, six new WDU courses, and more!

5 Tips for Keeping Your Writing Rolling

5 Tips for Keeping Your Writing Rolling

The occasional bump in the writing process is normal, but it can be difficult to work through. Here, author Genevieve Essig shares five ways to keep your writing rolling.

From Script

How to Write from a Place of Truth and Desire and Bending the Rules in Screenwriting (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with screenwriter Steven Knight (Spencer), Mike Mills (C'mon C'mon), and David Mitchell (Matrix Resurrection). Plus, how to utilize your vulnerability in your writing and different perspectives on screenwriting structure.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Forgetting To Read

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Forgetting To Read

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's mistake is forgetting to read.

Tapping Your Memories for Emotional Truths on the Page

Tapping Your Memories for Emotional Truths on the Page

Sharing even a fraction of our feelings with our characters will help our stories feel more authentic. Here, Kris Spisak explains how to tap into our memories to tell emotional truths on the page.

Poetic Forms

Trinet: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the trinet, a seven-line form based on word count.

Tammye Huf: On Real Love That Sparked Inspiration

Tammye Huf: On Real Love That Sparked Inspiration

Debut novelist Tammye Huf discusses how her own familial love story inspired her historical fiction novel, A More Perfect Union.