Dealing with Single Character Scenes

There are many things that make a writer stumble during writing, whether that’s plot development, characterisation, viewpoints etc, but a common stumbling block is how to deal with single character scenes.

Most scenes in a story will involve two or more characters, which doesn’t present a problem because there will always be action, dialogue and description for these characters to fill your pages.  But what if you have a scene, an entire chapter, or an entire story with just one character and no dialogue?

How do you write such scenes without being boring or repetitive?  How can you write them and still stimulate your reader?

It sounds daunting, but with practise it comes easily, and isn’t as much as a stumbling block as perceived.  In order for single character scenes to be effective and interesting, you must have a fully developed character that you know extremely well.  If you don’t, the premise of single character scenes becomes problematic, because you won’t be able to write with them so thoroughly and effectively.

You need this relationship with your character because a scene that is purely your character and his or her thoughts (no dialogue, remember), needs that symbiosis – it is someone whose thoughts and actions are ingrained with you and should, therefore, come easily. 

If your character isn’t well developed and you hardly know the character, those single character scenes won’t really work.

Most stories and novels will have some single character scenes at some point.  It may be the protagonist alone somewhere with only his or her own thoughts for company.  Perhaps they are trapped, or they are simply musing on what has happened.  Maybe the character is stuck in a traffic jam or you he or she is aboard a plane and you want to focus the scene solely on the character and nothing else.  Perhaps the character is remembering something – a memory or significant event in the past. 

The idea with these scenes is ideally to slow the pace of story and allow both the character and the reader to digest the story, and to impart necessary information.

There are many writers who have done this to great effect – David Morrell’s First Blood or Stephen King’s Misery, for example.

There are a number of devices writers can use for interesting, effective single character scenes:

·         Interior monologue
·         Action
·         Description
·         Flashback

Interior monologue is useful from time to time.  It allows the writer to enter their character’s mind to reveal information to the reader that other characters in the story won’t be privy.  It also allows the reader to get into the character’s mind to share their thoughts.  You can show how your character is really feeling about something, what they really think of something or someone.  You can also enhance the character’s internal conflict using interior thoughts.

Of course, the art of interior monologue to this is to keep it fairly short, but also to make it interesting for the reader so they don’t become bored, because in reality they don’t want to be confronted with great chunks of narrative without a hint of dialogue in sight.

Action, on the other hand, is the one thing every character will do.  A character is always doing something, even if they are simply sitting still, because they will rub their eyes, fiddle with their hair, massage their temples, wipe sweat from their brow, play with a piece of jewellery...the list is endless.  

If the character is alone and trying to escape from somewhere, then the potential for action is elevated, plus it gives the writer the chance to extend some conflict with the character – inner conflict and perhaps external conflict such as the surrounds or nature.

The except below is from a short story ‘The Old Man Slumbers’, and is almost entirely one character and has very little dialogue, so it makes use of action to keep the reader’s interest and move the story forward:

His shallow breaths echoed around the cavern.  He lay there listening to his life breezing in and out of his lungs, chest fizzling, constricted by the cold.

He pulled off his gloves, reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a half squashed chocolate bar.  Trembling, discoloured fingertips struggled with the wrapper – scrambled brain signals stuttered to fingers; fingers stuttered to wrapper – he couldn’t open it.  Frustration simmered close and he cursed loudly, tried again.  Then again.  And again.  Finally, he managed to split the packet on the sixth attempt and he ate greedily, the satisfying noise of mastication filling the hollow chamber, somehow comforting to hear.  He rested back, the taste and texture of the mulched chocolate sweet on his lips; the velvety sensation felt like the post-coital descent from euphoria. 

Stephen King is an effective exponent at this, as are the likes of Tom Clancy and Robert    Ludlam.

Besides action, a writer can always rely on description between action scenes to help bolster single character scenarios, as long as there isn’t too much description in large chunks, but rather smaller, digestible amounts, and the description is well written so that it carries the story forward.

The other way to write single character scenes effectively is to use the flashback technique.  This allows the character to revisit past events and also allows a writer to explore the character’s motivations – the kind of things that influence the character in the present.  Flashbacks also act to slow the pace and allow the reader (and character) to reflect.

And of course, there is no rule to say you can’t use all four devices in your single character scene, depending how long the scene or chapter or story is, and how well you write it.  Many writers do just that, but the most important thing is to know your character inside out.

Writing single character scenes aren’t the ball ache that writers presume them to be, and certainly not so when there are interior thoughts, action, description and flashbacks to help.

Next week: Create and Captivate


  1. Nice to see from your advice that I seem to be ticking all the boxes!

  2. Box ticking is a good sign, Lizy! Thanks for dropping by.


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