I don't think it is a secret that my favorite section in almost every RPG book I have is the "Player and GM Advice" sections of the book. Beyond the fact that these sections are often chock full of bits of good advice on how to capture, and play into, the way the game was meant to be played - which can greatly enhance the enjoyment of a system - there is also a lot of other good advice for gaming in general, as well as the closest thing you'll find to an essay from the author on how they like to RP. Recently I've been reading through my FATE Core rule book and the GM section here is no exception. Only, there is more than just advice for GMing here but also for general story telling, and some advice that I think can be super helpful to someone looking to liven up their sessions and cut out some of that awkward "meandering" time that always seems to exist.
But Fat Is Where The Flavor Is
Depending on who you ask for cooking advice you'll either be told to cut off the fat or to leave it as it is where the flavor is. Like with almost everything the truth is somewhere in between. You don't want all the fat gone, after all it can enrich the flavor of the meat, but you don't want to leave it all there either. Fat can quickly slow down the meal as the person has to either cut it off themselves, or get caught chewing endlessly on something that just won't go away.
Sessions in a lot of RPGs go the same way. There is a lot of awesome flavor and things to do, but there are also parts where everything hangs. People aren't quite sure what to do next, where to go, or how to go about doing that. This leads to a drop in the enjoyment in the session. Not good. What we want to do is keep the flavor but lose the awkward hanging around bit that causes people to have less fun. How do we do that?
Defining A Scene
What is a scene to you? To me for the longest time a scene was a section of time where stuff happened in the game/story. It works well enough, but it is a little vague and leaves room for a lot of fat to hang around. FATE Core on the other hand defines a scene as (I'm going off memory here) "a section of time with GM focus where the characters attempt to achieve an objective."
Now there is a core difference in the two definitions. In mine a scene involves "stuff happening" where as in FATE it is people working towards an objective. Once the objective is completed the scene can be wrapped up, finished off, and packaged away for the next scene to start. Stuff happening....well, that kinda just leads to more stuff happening...
Have An Objective
This means that you, as the GM, need to have an objective in mind whenever you go into a scene. What that objective is can be up to you. It could be that the objective is for the PCs to get into a random encounter in the market. It could be that the objective is to give the PCs some downtime to unwind. It could be that the objective is to help establish the feel of the setting. These are all valid objectives. Some of them are obvious though. So obvious you might wonder at why you need to have them in mind.
Well, the reason for that is because once you have an objective in mind you can watch for it. Once that objective happens the point of the scene is over and so it can be wrapped up. Let's take the most dangerous (leading to fat wise, I mean) objective above "giving the PCs some downtime to unwind." Now if your point is to just have the PCs talk, then they will do that forever. However, if you just want to give some downtime then you can watch for that. Does the tension ease out? Where does the conversation go? Once the PCs start talking about things that aren't super relevant to the topics at hand - or once the Players start diverting to conversing out of character - you've given them some downtime and can move along.
Objective Done, End When The Fun Diminishes
I want to be clear here, if your players - and you - are having a blast in character doing something after the objective is completed don't be afraid to let it continue. Sometimes people like conversing In Character or hashing out an IC argument after a fight. If it is fun, let them do it. Just, once things start to slow down swoop in and cut the scene off. Move on to the next scene where the next objective is waiting to be done.
Done right it could go like this:
The players wander around down town until their attention is caught by a store alarm. Investigating, they end up in a fight against a group of armed robbers. One of the robbers escapes and the police show up. The PCs flee the scene before getting involved with the law. The PCs decide to investigate the jewelery theft and decide on a plan of action. Once the plan of action is settled the GM cuts the scene and goes into the next scene where two of the players begin their investigation.
After the fight and fleeing from the cops the PCs choose to investigate. They divide up the duties for their plan of action. They then stay in character conversing and trying to figure out how to handle the minutiae (how whom gets where, etc) while a couple players less interested share an amusing anecdote about what happened at work that day. Eventually two of the players ask if their characters have arrived at the library yet and the game continues.
Now, these are kind of extreme for sure, but it can be true.The only difference is that in one the GM cut the scene and moved on as soon as the important stuff was done while in the other the GM waited to see what the PCs would do.