Thursday, March 21, 2013

8 Ways to Add Layers of Depth to Your Scenes

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 



I’ve been working with college-aged writers recently and noticed that many of them rush a scene by sending it to me too soon, as if they’re in a race. My job is to get them to be their own critic and not settle for mediocre, even if it means they won't get a grade. To get noticed in the slush pile of an agent or editor, today’s author must bring something new to the table that is uniquely from them and their storytelling ability.

Using an example of constructing a house, they send me the basic framework, but the finishing touches are lacking. Is the dialogue there? Check. Is there a beginning, middle and end to the writing sample? Check. Did I meet the bare essence of the assignment? Check. But a good house needs walls and all the finishing touches that make it feel like a home. Well-balanced scenes can be those finishing touches that make a house a home. They can add a balance of color/setting, voice, emotion, and memorable characters that doesn’t slow the pace down and make your work stand out as unique, too.

Here are 8 key ways to layer your scene with more depth and make them stand out:

1.) MAKE YOUR VOICE UNIQUE - Pick a POV for the character who will tell the story of the scene and give him or her a unique voice. That means you must see through their eyes and add their senses and opinions to the scene. You can talk about what’s in a room, as if it were a forgettable inventory, OR you can add color by having your character say things like, “the dump smelled like cat piss.” Also give each character their own unique voice, using the same care as you craft each one.

2.) USE ACTION - Show your character taking part in the scene, rather than merely talking about the emotion they’re feeling. A guy who is forced to fight when he’d rather cut and run like a coward will behave differently than a guy who wants to be there and do the right thing. The coward might hang back or urge someone else to take his place or fake an injury to get out of what he really doesn’t want to do. The brave guy would take lead or protect the others by shielding them with his body, for example.

3.) USE DEEP POV - Set your character’s deepest thoughts in italics as “Deep POV” to give the reader insight into your character’s internal motivation. These could be expletives or funny one liners that he /she would mutter under their breath or in their head. The right Deep POV touches can add punch.

4.) WEAVE IN BACK STORY SPARINGLY - Know your character and their back story so you can slip it into the story seamlessly. Not many readers today tolerate a back story dump. There’s not many ways to disguise it either. But weaving a back story over a longer timeframe of your story is a good way to build upon your character’s history without slowing the pace—and it can create a mystery element. Other characters (who have a past with him or her) can fill in the gaps in a more interesting way.

5.) PICK THE ESSENCE OF EMOTION - Emotion is vital to make a scene memorable. Pick out the best images or set the stage in actions that best highlight the emotion you’re trying to weave into the scene. Add only the essential images. This could be a man talking about the small of a woman’s back, at a certain time of day when her body entices the shadows, or his memory of the first time he’d ever noticed how perfect that gentle curve had always been. The sensuality can be there, without overwriting the description of her, plus it conveys his enduring love for her in a sensual way. I'm not a poet, but I often think that good writers have the soul of a poet in them when I read certain passages that make me stop and reread them.

6.) PICK THE MOST PROMINENT PHYSICAL TRAITS - Beauty is in the small details. Today’s average reader may not tolerate an author describing a character in great detail because that would slow the pace, but try picking out the most essential characteristics of your character and pepper your scene with those images to suggest traits, rather than spell them out. Instead of describing how thin a guy is, add color by saying his suit hangs on him as if he were a human coat hanger.

7.) GIVE THE SCENE STRUCTURE – I think of scenes as mini-stories that will propel the story along with 1-3 plot points infused into every scene. They have a beginning, a middle and an end so that the characters in that scene take a journey and move the story forward. Internal monologue should not be repeated. Have your character discover or learn something about themselves during the scene, for example.

8.) ADD SETTING THAT ENHANCES YOUR SCENE – Any scene can be enhanced with the right setting. The bare bones of two characters talking in a study can be enhanced if there is a menacing storm rumbling outside, a loud crackling fire in the hearth, and a musty old library smell in the air from the countless alchemy books that lined the shelves, an extensive collection of magic books that spanned centuries, set in a mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Classic.

I’ve mentioned 8 key ways to add depth to your scenes. Can you add more to this list? Please share your thoughts and what has worked for you.

30 comments:

  1. If your character is in a profession or endeavor that uses jargon, get it right and keep it simple.

    If he is a lawyer, go to the courthouse. Watch cop shows and read cop books. Take it easy with the military smack. Same with doctors, waitresses, anyone.

    Nothing hurts me more than than reading something about the lawyer talking to the head partner about going up to talk to the judge as his desk to tell him their client is innocent. Or cops saying "to heck with the warrant, I'm kicking the door in because the judge will understand how bad this guy is." (unless they are rogues and having the case thrown out of court is part of the plot.)

    I had a doctor very gently correct me about the color of internal organs and a soldier correct me less gently about how C4 behaves on detonation (and John Gilstrap give me a work-around on that).

    So, take a minute, do some research and get it right. It doesn't have to be to the nth detail, but it has to have a tang of realism. As an agent told me in a bar conversation, "On The Wire, drug dealers may not really talk like that, but the writers convinced me that they do."

    Terri

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    2. I couldn't agree more, Terri. As a practitioner and researcher, I find that incorrect,minute details tend to throw me off the story.

      A caution about cop shows - as most dramatized procedurals are highly inaccurate in some areas while focusing their accuracy in another area (example: CSI franchise). In an attempt to try to be accurate about forensic procedures, or to elevate drama, some of these shows get it vastly wrong in terms of general police operations. That may be what the public might want, though. Get the forensic part somewhat correct, get the police culture and tactics all wrong if it drives plot?

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    3. I agree on research needing to be accurate. I usually start with the Internet because it's convenient, but I always back up the important things with expert advice, books, and hands-on experience to fill in the gaps. I belong to a crime scene writer's loop with experts on many fronts, but when I see their quick answers (when I know they are leaving things out to keep their answers simple), I realize it's important to not take any one source as gospel. Thanks for your comment.

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    4. I agree, Terri. Ultimately the author has to do their research before they decide how it will work in the story. There have been times that fiction has won out over real life accuracy because who wants to wait weeks for forensics if you have a thriller pace going. But it is important to get it right when it counts.

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    5. Amen Terri. So it's blood SPATTER not splatter. :)

      Learned that one the hard way.

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    7. GAH! Typos abound today.

      Emissary, totally agreed on using cop shows for procedures. More of a pacing and atmosphere type of thing (For example, cops rarely say "car" when talking about an investigation, it is almost always "vehicle." Small point, but valuable.)

      And 99% of what lawyers do is boring as all get out, so liberties have to be taken. But in the end, it has to have that tang of realism or it is at best contrived or at worst laughable. Well done police dramas and books catch that tang and are worth emulating.

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    8. I handed of the first chapter of my webnovel to a friend in the Marine Corps. Her review was longer than the chapter! Mostly there were paragraphs interspersed with mine that went "NO!!!!! if were were going to do ANYthing like that we'd do....."

      Of course I make all the requested revisions and send it back to her only to have her turn around and ask for three more changes for "national security".

      ...

      On the one hand I'm honored that she helped me get things right but I'd rather she not make me a national risk...

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  2. Jordan,
    I've done a lot of workshops (as all of us here have) and all your points touch the essentials of the craft. It seems so easy and clear, doesn't it? Yet why can't some writers build a good house? One possible answer came to me when I was watching a juggler in a park. He started with two tennis balls and progressed up to three, then he added a meat cleaver and then a small saber. It came to me in a flash: a lot of people can juggle two tennis balls. Shoot, even I can do it. Two balls -- basic plot and simple character. But when we have to juggle three or four (or eight!) things start to fall apart. It can be done, even learned. But it takes practice, work and courage. Ah, but then what if you throw in a meat cleaver (tone? voice?). Well, then the writing gets special, no?

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    1. Great analogy, Kris. And good for you that you can do TWO. I'm a total klutz, even though I'd love to juggle. But layers make the story for me. They must appear to be effortless, but it's the difference between good and great storytellers. Courage and perseverance to learn the craft of writing is vital. Thanks for your great comment...and visual.

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  3. To make your scenes feel authentic, sprinkle in some details like items used. For example, one of my scenes is an autopsy. I've not witnessed an autopsy before, but my husband has plenty. I've heard him describe the people, the corpse, the smell, the blase nature with which it is conducted. But, that does not make me knowledgeable to the point I would convey authenticity of the scene. I, the non-expert, am being too general in my story-telling.

    However, a simple search on autopsy/morgue supplies yielded a Hagedorn needle and heavy twine, which I happily used in my scene. When my husband read the scene, he was impressed and wanted to know what made me include those details. I just told him, "It's a secret." lol

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    1. Great example, Diane. An autopsy can become tedious if too much details are used, but a smattering of particulars can set the stage enough that the reader can use their mind to fill in the gaps.

      Perhaps an author might pick the Stryker saw for its visual impact while cutting through a skull, but the author could perhaps use their imagination to describe the sound that the skull makes as it comes off the brain. Expert advice would be good here, or witnessing a real autopsy, but for most writers, minimizing the details can cover up for the lack of expertise (so long as the facts are blatantly wrong).

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    2. Forgot to mention. I had a very smart author friend who never seemed to get the details of a crime scene or how homicide cops would act, so he chose to put the POV in the head of the guy falsely accused of the murder and caught at the scene. He could gloss over the deets, without having any expertise, yet still keep the tension in the scene because the accused guy was an "unreliable narrator" and filled with emotion.

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  4. I'm a big fan of using humor to add depth. As a working prosecutor I can write an accurate and detailed courtroom or DA's office scene, but the reality of our work is that humor plays a vital role in keeping ourselves sane. This means a negotiation with a defense lawyer or a case analysis with a fellow ADA will almost certainly contain humor.

    As well as adding realism, then, it alters the cadence of the story, giving the reader a jolt, maybe, loosening tension so it can be ratcheted back up again.

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    1. I love your comment here, Mark. Cops are the same. Hang with them or go on a ride-along and get them talking, some have very dark humor. Like you say, they have to in order to keep their humanity.

      Now humor in a serious situation or a tension filled chase scene can work at times, but an author should be aware that, at the wrong time, it can yank the reader from the scene. Humor is a balancing act, but when it's done right, it is pure gold and a definite plus for voice.

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  5. This is great! I'm going to share this with my creative writing students, too.

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    1. Aw, cool, Sechin. I'm giving a free workshop at one of our local universities mid April and am so excited. I love young writers. Hell, I love ALL writers, but young ones are like sponges.

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    2. And YOU would have a lot to teach them, Sechin. I love your work.

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  6. Thank you again, JD, for contributing more pearls of wisdom to go with my morning coffee.

    I reaaaly like the "house" photo - my favorite part of construction. However, writing for me is more like a mole tunneling beneath the earth in search of story roots.

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    1. But once that mole finds a juicy root, they have to come up for air. I have no idea what that means, but run with it, dude.

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  7. I like to use background characters who possess over the top characteristics. I think of old movies where even someone like the boisterous train conductor adds a whole new level to the scene, even though he only exists for twenty seconds of the entire movie. Even a cat or dog walking through the room can give the scene a little pep.

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    1. I love this too, Ron. An author who does this takes care with everything they do. Those kinds of details, so long as they don't slow down the pace too much, adds vivid color and voice to your story. Well said.

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    2. Speaking of a background character . . . stealing an entire movie, how about Sydney Greenstreet in the Maltese Falcon?

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  8. Even if you THINK you know all this stuff, this is a great post. I'm going to share it with my writing class.

    I like to use location and have my characters interact with it. I did a short story set in Key West. I've never been there, but Google maps at street level let me walk the streets.

    Along the way, I found a sweet shop and my characters enjoyed ice cream cones as they walked along, discussing a murder. It was the main detail to set the characters in the scene. My editor mentioned that detail as important.

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    1. Google maps is a great way to discover the actual street setting, but you can make it more real by looking at business along the street and add your own life experiences to add the other senses (like you have done with your ice cream idea). Love that. Thanks.

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  9. Awesome- as always Jordan. I love your scenes and you are really able to break them down and tell why some things work and some don't - this is a great go to list. Again, someday, when I grow up, I want to be able to write scenes like you. :D

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    1. Awwww. Thanks, Chaco. You made my day. Have a great weekend. I hope your writing is going well.

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  10. For a second I thought you were advocating adding lawyers of depth, but I couldn't think of any.

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