By Janice Hardy
A shallow scene keeps readers from diving into the story.
Years ago, when I was editing my debut novel for my agent (The Shifter for those curious), I struggled to fix a few weak areas in the beginning. I kept looking at ways to make it more.
More exciting. More tense. More mysterious.
But it kept getting less interesting.
After a few back and forths with ideas and outlines, my agent and I got on the phone to hash out directions to go. I suggested even more “more” ideas, then she stopped and dropped the best advice she ever gave me.
My problem was, I kept trying to add “stuff” to the story when the story was working overall. It was just a few scenes here and there that needed tweaking. Adding things that didn’t support what I’d already written didn’t work.
It wasn’t until I started drilling down into my themes, my premise, and my scenes that I found the right path to take to fix my “needs a little work” beginning. That path led to a three-book deal with Harper Collins, so I’m glad I listened.
It’s digging into the characters’ emotions, their goals, their fears, their hopes and dreams, and then taking advantage of it to make their lives miserable. Until you give them that happy ending of course. We’re not monsters (unless we write horror, then that’s a perk).
We all want rich scenes that grab a reader, so here are five ways to go deeper with your scenes and provide those extra layers of awesome.
What a character isn’t saying is often more fascinating than what’s being said. Your subtext can not only add interesting layers to a scene, but can also help with description. The character’s body language and gestures will mean something, and won’t be an empty smile or brush of the hair.
If your characters are upfront and 100% honest all the time, you’re missing chances to create tension, mystery, and conflict in that scene.
Hide clues in plain sight, so when they become important later, readers have already seen them. For example, you might know that vase in the foyer is the key to who killed Grandma, so a simple moment when Cousin Joe bumps into it and it clinks is all you need to suggest there’s something inside that vase. The reveal of the hidden key at the end will feel inevitable and surprising instead of out of the blue, and you’ll look like a genius.
It’s also a great way to bring your setting and world into the action, and avoid infodumps and heavy descriptive passages.
Looking at what’s in a scene and what the characters use is also a useful way to take what’s already there and give it more meaning later. For example, if you need a weapon in Chapter Fourteen, show the protagonist near or using a garden trowel in Chapter Three.
There’s a lot of inherent conflict in a setting, as well as thematic opportunities. The right setting can change a character’s emotions, which can make them behave differently or make mistakes they ordinarily wouldn’t. If you need to knock a character off-kilter, the right setting could be a way to do it.
If your scene could happen anywhere and nothing in it changes, then it’s not serving your story as well as it could.
Creating a rich and vibrant scene puts readers in that scene, and gives you a chance to write something beyond the same old vanilla lines we all use. For example, smell is connected to memory, and memories can evoke emotions, so it’s a handy trigger if you need your character to remember something at the right time. Textures can also add a whole layer to a character struggling to find their way in the dark.
Don’t forget to look at the whole scene and imagine how a character might experience it. Unusual descriptions from non-typical senses bring originality to the story and the writing.
Scenes shouldn’t happen in a vacuum, and they’re stronger when they connect to other moments in the story. This is particularly useful when plotting, and can make the novel feel tight and well-crafted. Maybe that throwaway line could be a clue, or a walk-on character might play a bigger role, or a secret has farther-reaching consequences that expected.
After your first draft is done, look at the little details, throwaway lines, and small moments in your story and see if any would work well together. If you have any plot holes you need to fill, or subplots to create or flesh out, these little details and moments could be the perfect fix.
It doesn’t take a lot of work to craft a rich scene. Even a few lines can add depth and provide new layers of interest for your readers.
How deep do you go in your scenes? Do you have examples of places where an author dove to the perfect level of "deep?"
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
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Thanks so much for having me back again 🙂 Good to be back.
We missed you like crazy, Janice!!
I love this, Janice. Great advice. Recently I had a beginning scene that first readers liked but my mentor challenged me to find a way to strengthen it. I added a visual my characters allude to in other scenes. It was a visual my characters could react to with body language, all their senses, and their hidden inner emotions. It would have been easier to get to there if I had had your post to guide me.
Thanks! At least you got there, and that's the important part 🙂 It'll be easier from now on, too.
This article feels like a gift! As I'm nearing the end of my first draft--I'm going to print this out and make it a POSTER, ha! Thank you.
LOL Love it! I'm happy it clicked with you and will help you with your upcoming revisions.
I'm just about to jump into my second draft and this is exactly what I needed to spark it up adding depth. Thank you for this great information!
Perfect timing! I love when that happens. Happy to help, and I'm sending good writing vibes your way for draft #2.
Glad to see you back here, Janice. If ever there was advice that should always be sitting at the top of the toolbox it's this. In looking at every scene I've ever written, I can say with certainty that the best ones went deeper, the problem ones not deep enough (or were becoming oceans when I needed the Mariana Trench). Once you fix a scene by consciously going deeper it becomes a moment you don't forget. Afterwards, you read it and think, I wrote that? It's a good feeling and a great step.
Thank you! That IS a great feeling. Especially when we do it without a lot of work! Or maybe the work makes it even more special? I can see both 🙂
It's wonderful to read through your suggestions, as I am deep editing a sci-fi manuscript right now. 🙂 I appreciate your posts and how well they point me back to ways to tighten my stories.
For example, using subtext, or what isn't being said, is a great way to push a story forward. It causes that 'Wait. What?' moment for the reader and they want to read more. Now, I'm looking for it and adding it as I can. Thanks!
Thanks! I love subtext, especially in a genre novel, where the world isn't always like ours. There's so much you can say without stating the obvious. Body language works great in those situations.
Great reminders, Janice, thank you. For me, #3 is the one I need to remember. Seeking out the tough spots in a particular setting can make a big difference.
You're most welcome. Settings are so often underutilized, but they can add an extra layer of conflict to any situation. It's like free tension!
Very helpful post! I can relate because an early developmental editor of my book suggested I hadn't developed some scenes as fully as I could. Just like Lynette, I wish I'd had your list of questions to ask. Now I have it for book 2!
If it makes you feel any better, I made the list and still forget to do it all (grin). There's just too much to remember during a draft, so a lot of this does happen during a revision pass. Though a handy "don't forget" checklist helps a lot to write stronger early drafts. I use several myself.
Good luck on book two! Hope it goes well.
I love all of this, but my favorite is to use the setting. I need to remember that!
Thanks! Settings can add so much to a scene, and we tend to forget about them 🙂 I suspect this is even harder to remember for anyone writing in the "real world" as opposed to a created world like fantasy and science fiction.
enjoyed the post and the reminders.
So much great advice packed into one article. Thank you!
You're most welcome 🙂