If what appears to be happening in a scene is exactly what is happening in a scene, it can read as plodding and obvious. Direct, on-the-nose, mono-layered, mono-tone storytelling has a tendency to read as juvenile. That’s not to say the writing can’t be simple, but simple isn’t the same as simplistic.
One way to add depth to a scene is to take into account where the scene is set, and use the setting to create sophisticated storytelling. It should be noted that as simple doesn’t mean simplistic, so sophisticated shouldn’t mean convoluted.
Here are eight ways to achieve a greater level of depth without being too obvious (or too waffly) about it:
1.Use environment to convey environment
Let’s say the scene is of two men meeting. One is blackmailing the other. The blackmailee is intent on telling the blackmailer he is no longer willing to pay up.
Pretty clear dramatic scene that will automatically have tension, motivation, conflict and those sorts of elements. But where do they meet?
They could meet anywhere. Somewhere neutral, somewhere out of the way, somewhere public... You could easily make sense of just about anywhere. The aim of the scene is what they say to each other and how they act, right? Sure, they could just meet in a corner of a dark bar where they won’t be disturbed, but not taking a little time to choose the right location is missing an opportunity. Who chose the location? Why did that character want to meet there? What does it tell us about him? What does it say about the world he inhabits?
There’s a lot of information you can reveal about a character if the setting is character specific.
Make a point of choosing your setting for a reason. Make it an interesting one.
2. Reuse settings
You set an interesting scene in an interesting place, and then the story moves on. And you never return to that place. Another missed opportunity.
By revisiting a setting you can plant information/objects/characters for use later. You can build a character over time. You can show change. You can develop minor characters.
3. Use objects
Whatever the main aim of the scene appears to be, the underlying point of any story is to reveal character. Who they are is best shown by what they do. And using the stuff around them is an easy and unobtrusive way to do that.
If the blackmailer and his victim meet in a steak house, and the victim asks for a glass of water, and then when it arrives he takes a napkin, wets it, and then cleans the stains off the laminated menu, that tells us a lot about the kind of person he is. Plus he can be doing that sequence of events in between his conversation with the blackmailer.
4. Establish secondary characters
The minor characters who inhabit the world around your main ones, the waitresses, the bar tender, the bum in the gutter or whatever can feel perfunctory if all they do is precisely what they have to and nothing more. On the other hand you don’t want to waste time giving them huge speeches and their own complicated storylines if the tale isn’t about them.
The way round this is to work them into the main storyline in a way that requires them to react in non-standard ways.
For example, in the scene where the fastidious blackmailee gets the waitress to bring him water so he can clean the menu, how does she react? It only need be a single line of dialogue, but if it isn’t just eye-rolling or some pedestrian, unremarkable response, it can define an entire personality. What if she watched him clean the menu and then came back with a whole stack of menus and dropped them on to the table in front of him, saying “Knock yourself out.” Does that give you a better picture of her?
5. Theme, metaphor, foreshadowing, tone
This is pretty basic, although how you go about it isn’t. The surroundings of a dramatic scene are the best place to bury these elements, in description, in stuff going on around them, in objects they use. The shape of a table, the smell of burnt burger, the scrabbling of mice under the floorboards. Working these small, quick descriptions into a dramatic scene will go by unnoticed, but will register on some subconscious level.
Of course, you have to decide what kind of vibe you’re going for first.
Sometimes the best way to show what you’re going for is to put it in the last place you would expect to see it. If the blackmail guys decide to have their meeting in a supermarket, pushing round trolleys under bright fluorescent lights, everything exposed and whiter than white, the dramatic irony can exaggerate the dark nature of their business. And it can just be more fun.
7. Use behaviour in context
Characters act in a certain way. Even the most complex of characters aren’t as complicated as people in real life, because it would be too much, too random, too busy. Fictional characters have to be more consistent and more goal-driven so they make sense on the page.
But how they act within any given environment will change depend on the environment and add depth to a character. When they’re in their own office talking to their underling, when they’re in their boss’s office being talked to as an underling, will require shifts in tone and behaviour.
Most aspiring writers choose a neutral setting, so they can concentrate on the information that needs to be dealt with in that scene. The person the MC bumps into is an equal, and they chat casually, exchanging information that is relevant to the plot.
Now, what if they bump into the guy who bullied them at school? The woman who runs their weight watchers group? The ex-girlfriend who ran away with their best friend? How does that change the scene if you still have to get the plot-relevant information from one person to the other?
8. More than one thing at a time
If you set the scene in the right place you can have more than one storyline happening. The danger is it gets too busy and too messy. But if handled right, if the main storyline is front and centre, and the other stuff is only a line here and there, it can make it feel like your story is happening in the world, rather than in a void where only your main characters exist.
And if you reuse settings as mentioned above, revisit places through the story, you can advance these minor storylines bit by bit. If the first time in the steak house they hear some shouting in the kitchen between the waitress and the cook, and the next time they hear another couple of lines of arguing with their story having moved on, this kind of gradual drip-feed kind of story structure can build across a book. Quick, deft characterisation like that isn’t easy, but it works well when you can do it.
Overall you have to keep in mind that your characters live in a world (even if it isn’t the world we know) and they won’t just be interacting with each other, they also have to exist within their environment. So make the most of it.
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