October 12th, 2020

Layering Your Scene: The Five Key Elements

by Lori Freeland

A writer’s blank page is like an artist’s empty canvas. It takes a lot of work to get from here—

—to here.

An artist doesn’t create a masterpiece in one sitting with a single layer of paint. He has to use several layers, sometimes letting each one dry in between.

As writers, instead of using watercolors or oils or charcoal to wow our audience, we paint pictures with words. With those words, we not only build a visual but a mood and a story. One way to do this is to use the five key elements below in every scene.

  1. dialogue
  2. internal thought
  3. description
  4. action
  5. emotion (voice cues, facial expressions, body language, visceral reactions)

We don’t have to use each one equally. That’s guaranteed to mess with the flow of your scene. But make sure all of them at least make an appearance. If your scene isn’t working and you’re not sure why, chances are you’re missing one of the elements.

In order to layer, you need a place to start—a plumb line. The backbone of your scene. Any of the first four key elements will work. We’ll save emotion for the end. That’s the polish on the prose. And the last thing I put in.  

Your plumb

line will depend on your genre, what’s happening in the scene, and what comes easiest for you as you stare at the blank page.

Mine is dialogue. My characters talk to me before they do anything else, so we’ll start there.

Example:
“Are you kidding me?” Her everyday alto shoots past soprano.

1. Dialogue

Dialogue is what your characters say out loud—and only what your characters say out loud—not what they’re thinking about. It’s always inside quotes.

What Does It Do For You?

Dialogue is a powerful tool. What your characters say and how they say it tells a lot about who they are, what they’re thinking, what’s happening in the scene, and their relationships with each other. Sometimes what I remember most about a book is the witty conversation.  

Watch Out For

  • He said/she said. Avoid long chains of back-and-forth conversation with no other scene elements.
  • Characters not reacting to revelations, not answering questions, or not responding to dialogue in a way that makes sense.

Exception: If you character is doing any of the above on purpose, make sure we see some sort of hint that it’s deliberate and/or a motivation behind it.    

Note: For a more in-depth look at dialogue, see Dive Deep into Dialogue.

2. Internal Thought

Example:
I’ve been an adult half a day, and it already sucks.

Internal thought is what your characters don’t say out loud. It’s what they’re thinking. And it’s never inside quotes.

We can only use internal thought with the POV character—the character telling the story in that particular scene.

Note: If you want to know why, and for a more in-depth look at POV, see P-O-WHAT? Understanding Point of View.

What Does It Do For You?

Internal thought supports dialogue. Example: “That’s not possible.” And it wasn’t. Otherwise, I would’ve already tried.

Expands Dialogue. Example: “You can’t take a freshman to the senior prom.” That was like unwritten law or something.

Contradicts Dialogue. Example: “You would know.” I force my voice level, blowing off the way he’s talking to me. But inside, I’m an off-the-rails rollercoaster.

Internal thought also adds motivation to a character’s actions. What people appear to do isn’t always what it seems. It’s a great way to redeem an unlikeable character or foreshadow what’s to come. Just like we can learn a lot about a person by what he’s saying, we can learn even more by what he’s thinking.

What To Watch Out For

  • Rambling. Too much internal thought can interrupt the action, break up conversation, stall your pace, and kill your tension.
  • Isolation. Having a character alone for too long in a scene results in huge chunks of internal thought. While we do want to know what your character is thinking, we don’t want to know everything he’s thinking for pages and pages. 

Note: For a more in-depth look at internal thought, see The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue.

3. Description

Example:
Sunlight streams through the wall of windows overlooking our pool, highlighting Vi’s lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors. I’d kill to shop where she buys her confidence.

Description is setting plus everything else a reader can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in the scene. It’s objects (the couch, the coffee cup, the tree). It’s people (your characters, the other people in the background). It’s locations (a room, a park, a car).

What Does It Do For You?

Description sets your stage and builds out the scene in a way no other element can. Think about the props you see in a movie. Or the way a room is decorated. Or the location chosen for the shoot.

When you open a scene, the reader enters an empty white space. How you “fill” that space sets the tone, the mood, and paints the visual. Think a well-lit great room with a roaring fire versus a shoebox bedroom with shadows swaying against the walls.

Description is the backbone for worldbuilding. It lets you really show readers the depths of your imagination and helps them dig into theirs.

What To Watch Out For

  • Overkill. Too much detail, especially when your pace needs to be fast, can kill the mood and weaken the action.
  • Underkill. The first time you introduce a character or a location, that’s where we need the most description and the important details. Is your character in a wheelchair? We need to “see” that upfront. Is it winter? Put him in a coat.   
  • The wrong message. When we meet a new person or go to a new place, we form an instant impression. Make sure your description makes the reader feel the way you want her to feel about your people and places. 
  • Missing pieces. We can only “see” what you actually put on the page. Not what you thought you put on the page. Check for the details as you edit.

4. Action

Example:
When I see Dad standing next to Vi, my flip-flops slap to a sudden stop.

Action is what physically happens in a scene. Description and action go together. What people, animals, objects, or the even the weather is doing usually involves the world around them.

What Does It Do For You?

  • Brings your scene to life. What characters are doing is as important as what they’re saying. The cliché that actions speak louder than words is true.
  • Amps your tension and accelerates your pacing. Think the car chase in a thriller or the slow reveal in a mystery when the murder is finally solved and the killer pointed out. 

What To Watch Out For

  • Impossible action. Visualize your scene like a movie. If you’re not sure that what your characters are doing physically works, act it out. A three-hundred-pound man can’t effectively hide behind a door.
  • Accidental action. Characters who do something contradictory to what you intended. A calm person wouldn’t knock over a table just because. 
  • Unnecessary action. Don’t just add action for the sake of having a character do something. Make it work for the plot and the scene. Use it as an opportunity to build out your character and show the reader something new.

5. Emotion

Example:
A rushing river fills my ears, swallowing all the sound. Invisible fingers fist inside my chest—squeezing, squeezing, squeezing. Smothering my heart. Muffling the sluggish beat. Dissolving, disintegrating, I sink into myself, like I’m being vacuum-sealed from the inside out.

Emotion makes your scene shine. Adding in this last layer is my favorite part. It’s all about showing rather than telling. And when you stop telling your reader how your character feels—and how she should feel—you let the reader experience what your character is experiencing and feel it for herself.

Note: For a more in-depth look at showing, see Show, Don’t Tell: The 3 Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary.

Here are Some Ways to Add Emotion with Examples

  • Dialogue Cues: The way a character says something. This description should go right before or right after dialogue.  

Example: “I don’t think so.” Her voice barely carries across the table.

Example: “He’s just a teenager.” He said teenager the same way I said stupid.

  • Facial Expressions: The “body language” of your face. Watch people’s expressions. They give away how someone really feels.

Example: Then her eyes start to clear, the superpower of my lips wears off, and she’s looking at me like she has kisser’s remorse.

Example: In one barbed look, he manages to nail me with equal amounts of accusation and disappointment.

  • Body Language: Non-verbal cues that have to do with a person’s actions or how they hold themselves. It’s a great way to get across how a non-POV character is feeling when we can’t know what he’s thinking.

Example: Jess grips the sides of her chair like she’s on a rollercoaster and her safety harness just snapped.

Example: “You lied.” Cade folds his arms stiffly across his chest and plants his boots a little wider, his tension strung tighter than his Oak Cliff Lacrosse T-shirt.

  • Visceral Reactions: Involuntary inner reactions. Remember, involuntary means you can’t control it. These are things like heartrate, chills, pressure in the lungs, throat closing, stomach dropping. Also, like with internal thought, this only works for the POV character.

Example: She drops a tentative palm on my arm, confusing my heartbeat.

Example: I’m struggling to breathe against what feels like an eighteen-wheeler rolling back and forth across my chest.

Example: The impossible promise I made to her tightens around my neck, choking me hard enough to strangle a rabid pit bull into submission.

What Does It Do For You?

Emotion lets you deepen your characters. If we can connect with someone, we tend to empathize. And that’s a great way to hook your readers. You want them to get overly attached to your characters.

Emotion adds subtext and lets us read between the lines.

Characters often interpret what they see and make decisions about what another person is feeling. This can lead to miscommunication and up your conflict. Conflict drives your story forward.

Emotion is about more than just feelings. It’s about the mood and tone you’re setting as well.

Consider not only how you want your characters to come off to each other but to your reader too.  

What You Need To Watch Out For

  • Overuse. Don’t put emotion into every line, or you’ll end up with 3,000 pages. Sometimes all you need is a little hit. Other times, when it’s important to your character and to your reader to make a big deal about something, you need more. 
  • Bad Timing. Don’t interrupt tense action or fast pacing with long descriptions of emotions. I’m not going to wax poetic about you if we’re being chased through the woods by wolves. I’m going to save that for later.
  • Cliches. Just like with overused words and phrases, there are overused descriptions. If you’ve read it a million times, chuck it and think of something new.

One way to expand your go-to list for adding emotion is to watch movies or TV shows for the ways people behave in certain situations. There is no internal thought on TV. Everything has to be shown by speech and action.

Note: For a super in-depth look at emotion, see Margielawson.com. Margie teaches things no one else does. Between her blog posts, her EDITS System, Lawson Writers’ Academy, and the lecture packets, her website is a writing goldmine. I’ve just given you an overview here of a few of the things she covers.

Bringing all the layers together. Photo from Pixabay.

The 5 Key Elements in Action

As a wrap-up, I’d like to share an example of how just how much the five key elements (dialogue, internal thought, description, action, and emotion) bring to your scene. If you’re familiar with Margie’s EDITS System, I’ve used most of the colors to highlight each part.  

As you read through each “version,” notice how adding each layer gives you more information about what’s happening in the scene and a deeper connection to the characters. We barely get any information from the dialogue only. We have no idea what’s going on. And we don’t really care. Adding in action and description helps the scene make more sense. Throwing in internal thought helps us understand the character. But it’s not until we add emotion that the scene seems to come alive.

Color Key

DIALOGUE: Words a character speaks out loud inside quotation marks.

INTERNAL THOUGHT: Unspoken thoughts. Part of the narrative. POV character only.

SETTING: Descriptions of concrete object—things you can touch—railing, couch, car. And also, in this example, character descriptions.

ACTION: What people or things do. What’s happening in the scene.

EMOTION: Voice Cues/Facial Expressions/Body Language.

VISCERAL REACTIONS: An involuntary body reaction—a reaction a person can’t control—like heartrate, chills, pressure in the lungs, etc. (It has its own color to stand out)

Layering Example from The Accidental Boyfriend

Note: The colors are a busy visual, but look at the patterns and how the layers fit together.

DIALOGUE only

“I can drive myself downtown,” I say.   

“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” Dad says. 

 “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there,” I say.  

 “The hotel’s twenty minutes away,” I say. “I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess,” Dad says. “You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.”


DIALOGUE plus ACTION and SETTING

I glance at my perfect pedicure.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

He walks to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.”

“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He walks out the door.

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and348b6b into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

All I get is a short grunt as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess. You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room.  

I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.


DIALOGUE / ACTION / SETTING plus INTERNAL THOUGHT

Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

He heads to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

Feeling reckless, or maybe just desperate, I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.” Or stay home and spare my life a few thousand skid marks.

“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” he says the words as he walks out the door. The only words he’s said to me all morning. Not words I want to hear. Riding and rooming with my literary agent leaves me no escape when my first writers’ conference spirals south. And it will spiral south. 

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and the diary into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

He tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess. You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room.  

Normally, he wouldn’t notice if I played in traffic. I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.


DIALOGUE / ACTION / SETTING / INTERNAL THOUGHT plus SUBTEXT (voice cues, facial expressions, body language and visceral reactions)

Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.

Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom.

I quickly close my laptop before he sees Mom’s profile on my screen and shove her diary under the stack of writing books piled on my desk.

But he doesn’t even turn his head on his way to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle. 

Feeling reckless, or maybe just desperate, I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.” Or stay home and spare my life a few thousand skid marks.

“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He throws the words over his shoulder on his way out the door. The only words he’s said to me all morning. Not words I want to hear. Riding and rooming with my literary agent leaves me no escape when my first writers’ conference spirals south. And it will spiral south. 

Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and the diary into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. I don’t even make it to the top of the stairs before my chest starts to sink and hollow. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”  

All I get is a short grunt as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 

I take the steps two at a time to catch up. “The hotel’s twenty minutes away. I’ll keep the car in the parking garage the whole week.” 

“Jess.” He barks my name in his standard stand down private. “You’re not driving in Dallas traffic.” He drops my luggage on the kitchen tile and rounds the corner into the great room 

Normally, he wouldn’t notice if I played in traffic. I throw my backpack on the island and hurry after him.

Do you layer your writing? Is it purposeful, or do you do it instinctively? Feel free to share a before and after line with us down in the comments! Also, Lori welcomes all questions. 🙂

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app. 

20 responses to “Layering Your Scene: The Five Key Elements”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Wow! What a clear, comprehensive, and usable framework you've offered! Your examples bring the concepts to life perfectly. The only thing I would add to this outstanding overview of the elements of a scene is POV consistency, which weaves through all the elements you cite. I'm attuned to this because I often catch myself in small POV violations—for example, attributing a reaction or emotion or motive to a non-POV character when writing in close third person All I'm allowed to say is what that character can observe or know about another character. Those violations often sneak in by accompanying a bit of dialogue 🙂

    • Hi Barbara! Thank you. And thank you for pointing out the POV issues. For more on POV, I did add a link for anyone interested in a more in-depth explanation. I didn't have enough wordcount to go into details. But, you're right, I could've probably added a line about that. Good catch 🙂

  2. Lori, thanks for your interesting article. It confirmed the formula I believe serves a writer very well for holding the readers interest, I believe you intended to use the word “plumb” and not “plum” line when you were referring to the backbone of the story.

  3. Ellen says:

    Apparently, I layer instinctively. This blog is fantastically comprehensive! Definitely a keeper.

  4. You've given us so many useful tips and great examples, as always!

  5. The perfect Monday-morning-kick-in-the-pants we all need. Thanks, Lori!

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    I always love a post related to anything Margie Lawson. Her EDITS system always saves me because, while I rock at dialogue, I forget to add in body language. Every. Time!! I have to go back and add it during the editing stage. 🙂

  7. barbdelong says:

    SO helpful! Love Margie Lawson's techniques. I'm sharing this with my group.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    Great information!

    I do try to layer, especially when I go back in and edit and find where it's needed.

    denise

  9. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    This was a great article. Read it twice and will bookmark it. Why doesnt the WITS have LIKE buttons again? Some of these remarks are notable as well. I like to tag stuff that makes me think harder.

  10. Good article. I do all these things... now. But these were learned skills, picked up through many invaluable critique group sessions over the past four years. I think I've found a reasonable balance between them in my writing, but some are added back unconsciously when I'm re-reading (and invariably tweaking) a previously written scene. Thanks. Well done.

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