Storytelling: Writing Downtime

Plotlines ebb and flow between action and downtime. No story can be packed full of action all the time or else it becomes monotonous and loses its effect, but how can we write about downtime or other slow parts of a narrative while still keeping readers engaged? Here’s what I’ve tested and found worked for me.

1. Set Up Emotions for the Following Scenes

This is a trick I use in my daily life as a person, especially when I’m sitting down to write. Instead of setting up my afternoon as “I have to write 3k words by 4pm”, instead I’ll restructure my concept into “I get to write 3k words before dinner”. By reframing the task, I can curate the experience into one I’m excited for. Because I love writing! Even when it’s hard. So I’ll make a cup of chai and purposefully sink into my tea ritual, then set up my desk space to be comfortable, then open my laptop and approach the blank page as something ready to be filled. By framing my downtime in a positive way, I can approach my next task from a positive place. (It doesn’t always work, but you’d be surprised at the difference some mental gymnastics can make.)

You can do this with characters, too. If your character is transitioning between big events, but you want to give your readers a break between high energy plot points, then write your character some purposeful downtime. A handy trick when writing transition scenes is to establish the mindset your character needs to be in at the start of the following scene, then reframe the slower points of the story to set up the faster portions. Here are two contrasting examples:

  • Character POV needs to go into a work meeting in high spirits: add positive elements or pleasant surprises during the downtime. Maybe on the commute they get their usual coffee for free, maybe they’re ahead of schedule and make it to their subway station with plenty of time, maybe they started a new audiobook and it’s finally getting to the good part – all of these small positive things are quite mundane, but compiling them all into the same morning can boost your character’s mood without needing any high energy scenes.
  • Character POV needs to go into a work meeting in low spirits: Take the same principle and put a negative spin on it. That same commute? Their usual coffee spills and scalds their hands or stains their fancy white shirt, they barely make it into the subway in time and the car is packed (or they don’t make it at all), or in their rush to get out the door they forgot the new audiobook they started even though it was just about to get to the good part, and now they have to commute for half an hour with nothing to listen to. All of these inconveniences are low energy, but when you compile them all into the same awful morning, then by the time they get to their work meeting they’ll be exhausted, which might be exactly what your scene needs.

If you have an end goal in mind, namely setting up the next high energy scenes, then you can frame your downtime in a way that makes your character transition smoothly into the next scene in a believable way.

2. Acknowledge Rest

This tip works best between two high energy action scenes. In order to separate the two and give your readers a breather, you’ve decided to put in a few low energy scenes. This will also add to the progression of time instead of having to do a significant time skip. So give your character downtime, but acknowledge that they are resting during this time.

Whether or not the character knows they’ll be facing another conflict is up to you as the author, but take the time to acknowledge the recovery that happens during this slower part of the story. If they’re wounded, note how the wounds are healing or if their strength is returning (same goes for side characters). If they were away from loved ones, add scenes or sentiments relating to a reunion. Give your characters a break and your readers will feel it as their break, too.

Characters at rest are also a great way to add in some exposition. For example, if there was a battle of some kind in the previous scene and now we’re in a low energy environment, it would feel natural for your character to want to be caught up on anything they missed while they were in the thick of the action. This can be via side characters as dialogue, or in an observational capacity (“Character A spoke with a stable hand and learned that X”). Just remember that if your character is learning new facts from other characters, no one should be considered omniscient. The stable hand most likely wouldn’t know about the governmental policy that was passed during the battle, etc. Make sure the new information is both relevant and believable for your readers.

3. Dive Into Character Design

Downtime is a great time for reflection and/or internal monologues. Maybe your character can go over the details of the previous high energy scene and pick it apart, wondering what they could or should have done differently. Or maybe they’re stressed about the next high energy scenes, and they go down a rabbit hole of worry. Either way, these methods will help transition between scenes and give your readers a better sense of what makes your characters tick.

Character design features that can pop up in downtime include things like:

  • Anxiety. Is your character dwelling on mistakes? Creating “what if” scenarios that wind them up? Anxious people dwell on things, so instead of saying “my character is anxious” let your readers see the toll their anxiety is taking.
  • Cleanliness/hygiene. Once your character gets a few moments to themselves, do they catch up on hygiene things they haven’t had time for? Do they take a soothing shower? Do they clean their apartment? Or do they ignore those needs and just stew instead? This can also set up scenes later, where they are glad or wished they had done those things during the downtime. Either way, these writing decisions speak volumes about your characters.
  • Hobbies. Does your character have any hobbies they can return to once they get some downtime? Do they curl up with a book or try to make something with their hands? Or maybe they reflect on how they need a hobby to fill the time, which can add a layer of potential motivation and tell readers details about your character without needing to info dump to spell it out.
  • Relationships. Assuming you just got out of a high energy scene, does your character have an immediate urge to tell someone about it? A friend or family member or significant other? Or are they grateful for the solitude? What about pets?

All of these things will depend on the length of the downtime your characters are given, plus availability of side characters and settings. But you can provide character design details despite/because of this as well. If they can’t make it home, have them reflect on how much they wish they could be there. Or maybe they’re glad for the break from home. Tailor it to your story and your characters, and you’ll be surprised by how much detail you can include via reflection.


Low energy scenes are perfect for observation, which are in turn a perfect opportunity to world-build! If your character is walking between two destinations, and you know they’re both high energy, then slow the pace down by describing their surroundings in detail during the transit. Maybe it’s a familiar path for them, and they can go through their routine of looking for a stray cat they always see on the corner, or they can note the changing window displays of familiar stores.

If there are any elements of your world that you haven’t been able to communicate yet, then let the reader learn about them via your character. Try not to info dump, make sure all of the observations are relevant to that moment. For example, if you want to talk about the local cuisine, have your character pass by food stalls and describe how it smells, whether your character wishes they could stop for some or if they hurry by, etc. If you need to share details about geography, have your character experience its impact on them in that moment. By the sea? Describe the salt in the air or the smell of fish. By a mountain range? Describe how the winds always pick up speed coming down the mountains when it’s getting ready to storm. Or you can always describe the view if your character is out in the setting or looking through a window, or you can have them reflect on a view they had at one point.

The trick with worldbuilding is to keep it relevant and rooted in your perspective. If you need to describe the political climate in a neighboring city, wait for it to be relevant to the character. Even if you’re narrator is omniscient and/or you have a third-person perspective, you don’t want your readers to get lost without a character to follow. The exceptions I can think of are in introductory exposition or broad conclusive exposition. But use them sparingly and don’t leave your readers without steady characters for extended periods of time.

In Conclusion

Downtime may not be as flashy as high energy scenes, but it’s versatile and can be used to further your plot. The key is to keep your readers engaged with the story while giving them a chance to rest. All stories have rises and falls of energy throughout, it’s just a matter of using them effectively.

What do you think? How do you write downtime? How do you feel when you read downtime written by other authors? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss any Author Rescue updates, join the monthly newsletter!

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