When you write, whether it’s a short scene or a whole chapter, you usually have a rough idea of what you want to achieve. You may not know exactly how things will play out, but there’s going to be something the scene will be based on, even if it’s only that two characters will get together and chat.
As a reader you don’t need to bother too much about what is immediately apparent in a story and what becomes apparent over time. It will churn around in your mind and your subconscious will make of it what it will. Different people will intepret it in different ways. However, as a writer, you need to be aware of everything going on because you’re the one who has to put it there.
It may be that there is one really vital thing you want to get across, and everything else isn't that important. And you can certainly get away with telling the reader one thing at a time. But it will tend to produce a slow, plodding story.
In fact the only time when it’s suitable for a scene to be just about one thing is when that thing is of momentous importance. If you’ve been building up to a climax, or an event of great emotional impact, focusing on it solely can add weight and emphasis, whether it’s a kiss or a bomb going off or the discovery of an alien armada.
But in a regular scene, just making the one point, while it isn't wrong by any means, it is a wasted opportunity.
On a basic level, if you have two people talking, what are they doing? Physically, what are their actions? If they’re sitting at a table across each other taking it in turns to speak, you’re putting them in a vacuum. In some cases, at certain points in a story, you may wish to do just that (depending on the effect you’re trying to achieve). But generally you’re just wasting resources if you aren’t using all parts of the animal.
Once you give them something to do, how are they doing it? Instead of making it generic behaviour, how do these specific people behave? Once you have them behaving in their own idiosyncratic ways, how is their environment affecting them?
A scene not only serves the purpose of telling you what characters are doing, it tells you how they’re doing it, which tells you what kind of people they are. It also tells you where they’re doing it. It tells you the dynamic between people (not just through what they say, but also how they act, how they move, how they treat others, where they look, the state of their hair...).
The reason you want to let the reader know what characters are doing, where they are, who’s around them etc., is not to give reader a clear picture of the surroundings. Your neighbour’s holiday photos give you a very clear picture of what happened on their vacation, that doesn’t make them any more interesting to look at. What a character is doing and how they’re doing it, tells you what kind of people they are. Where they are tells you about their status. How they react to people gives you an indication of their emotional condition.
The thing to remember though is that all this additional information does not have to mean additional pages. The scene of two men at a restaurant talking about firing Dave in accounting will be more or less the same length whichever way it’s written (although, of course, a lot depends on the writer’s style of writing). You still have to give some information to the reader explaining the basic set-up. But if you bear in mind that you can use that opportunity to also Trojan horse in some extra info, there will be a difference in how the reader absorbs the story.
Writing a realistic scene of two men being waited on and served dinner and drinks, behaving like professional businessmen, discussing affairs pertinent to the story, both agreeing Dave needs to be fired for the good of the company, will make perfect sense to anyone who reads it.
The scene where two men argue over who in accounting to fire, one gets the name of the waiter wrong, the other orders a specific wine that doesn’t exist and discovers he’s left his wallet in the office, tells you the same expositional stuff as the first version, but a whole lot more.
There are ways to make the fabric of the story as important as the surface events. When every element serves many functions, and those functions are weaved together, you create a much more rounded and rewarding story.
Take a look at the story you're writing and look for places you can use to hint at other aspects of the characters' lives. Don't leave your Trojan horses empty.
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