10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author

[By the way, check out our growing list of resources in the TKZ Library.]

Congratulations! You’ve gotten a first draft of your story down, perhaps after writing madly for NaNoWriMo. Now it’s time to go back and reassess each scene to see if it’s pulling its weight.

Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story.

To bring your characters and story to life, heighten reader engagement, and pick up the pace, try to make your scenes do double or even triple duty  but subtly is almost always best.

For example, a scene with dialogue should have several layers: the words being spoken; the viewpoint character’s real thoughts, opinions, emotions, and intentions; the other speaker’s tone, word choice, attitude, body language, and facial expressions; and the outward reactions, attitudes, and actions of both.

Ten key ways you can intensify your writing and enhance the experience for readers:

1. When introducing new characters, remember to show, rather than tell. Reveal their personality, motives, goals, fears, and modus operandi not by telling the readers about them or their background, but by their actions, words, body language, facial expressions, tone, and attitude. If it’s a viewpoint character, show their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Also, show characters’ reactions to each other. Then let the readers draw their own conclusions about the characters and their true intentions.

2. Enhance your descriptions of the setting and other characters by filtering them through the mood, attitude, and reactions of the POV character for the scene. This not only gives the readers a visual image of whatever the character is looking at, but helps with character development. We learn more about the character’s personality and what is driving / motivating him by his observations of his surroundings and others around him. And add in other sensory reactions – sounds, smells, even tastes and tactile sensations.

3. Use close point of view to deepen characterization of the protagonist and other POV characters by showing inner conflict, doubt, or indecision, or by contrasting their words and outward reactions with their true inner feelings.

4. Make dialogue do double-duty. Dialogue should not only convey information, but also reveal character & personality and advance the storyline. Dialogue action tags, which can replace “he said” and “she said,” tell us both who’s speaking and what they’re doing, as well as often providing info on how they’re feeling and reacting. For example:

Chris stood up and ran his hand through his hair. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jesse set his coffee down, determined to stay calm. “Hey, man, relax. I told you about it last week. Don’t you remember?”


5. Show subtext during dialogue. A couple might be arguing heatedly about something fairly trivial, when inside one or both are really angry or resentful about deeper problems, which you can hint at by inner reactions, or which can come out at the end of the scene or later.

6. Introduce suspense or heighten anticipation through the use of hints and innuendos, or snippets/fragments of critical information.

7. Show sexual tension between love interests by revealing heightened sensory perceptions and physical reactions. Be sure to show the inner reactions and often-conflicted feelings of your POV character.

8. Show brief flashbacks to reveal character secrets and fears, little by little.

9. Deepen connections between characters by having them discover similar values and goals, and showing these through dialogue, tone, body language, actions, etc.

10. Increase the conflict between characters by showing opposing goals and values, through dialogue, body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.

How the experts do it. Here’s an example of a brief scene with lots of intriguing info subtly embedded in it, presented in a natural, casual way, organic to the character and the situation:

This is how James Lee Burke introduces his main character, Dave Robicheaux, as well as the local executioner, Val Carmouche, on page 2 of Purple Cane Road (Robicheaux is narrating, in first person.):

That was when I was in uniform at NOPD and was still enamored with Jim Beam straight up and a long-neck Jax on the side.
One night he found me at a table by myself at Provost’s and sat down without being asked.
“Being a cop is a trade-off, isn’t it?” Vachel said. […] “You spend a lot of time alone?”
“Not so much.”
“I think it goes with the job. I was a state trooper once.” His eyes, which were as gray as his starched shirt, drifted to the shot glass in front of me and the rings my beer mug had left on the tabletop. “A drinking man goes home to a lot of echoes. The way a stone sounds in a dry well. No offense meant, Mr. Robicheaux. Can I buy you a round?”
As a first-time reader of Burke, I found out quite a bit about his main character through this very brief scene on page 2, including that Dave was in the NOPD, had at least somewhat of a drinking problem, and was probably lonely. I’m definitely intrigued and want to read more.
Writers – Do you have any points/techniques to add? Would you like to share a paragraph or two in your writing where you do double (or triple) duty to enhance a scene?

Readers – Can you give us a powerful paragraph or two from a book you’ve enjoyed, where the author has effectively accomplished several things at once?

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

26 thoughts on “10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

  1. Here’s a fun one from SKINNY DIP:
    At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from the luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.
    I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.

    In a few simple strokes, this scene introduces Joey’s character (well-to-do, stays cool in a crisis), and situation (attempted murder by her husband).

  2. I would be thinking the same thing just before hitting the water! lol

    Here’s one that sticks in my mind (by Dean Koontz – From The Corner of His Eye)

    Junior shoved Naomi so hard that she was almost lifted off her feet. Her eyes flared wide, and a half-chewed wad of apricot fell from her gaping mouth. She crashed backward into the weak section of railing.

    For an instant, Junior thought the railing might hold, but the pickets splintered, the handrail cracked, and Naomi pitched backward off the view deck, in a clatter of rotting wood. She was so surprised that she didn’t begin to scream until she must have been a third of the way through her long fall.
    Junior didn’t hear her hit bottom, but the abrupt cessation of the scream confirmed impact.

  3. Great list of ways to add zing to scenes…now if I could just get to my books amid the renovation craziness I might be able to find a scene…but sadly no…

  4. It’s foolish to submit my writing after Burke, Hiassen and Koontz but will anyways.

    From “Nerve Damage”, this is part of the intro of the primary antagonist (her POV). She is flaunting her elite level strength and conditioning (she uses mega-doses of performance enhancing drugs) among a throng of fitness buffs in a Minneapolis hotel’s workout center:

    The exclusive hotel’s clientele reminded her of the in-crowd that had infested her high school. Meryl’s obesity, cheap clothes, and sexual orientation had made her a target back then. Poor, fat and a fag—it was as if there’d been a bounty on her.
    She kicked up her cycling rate. Even after more than a decade, the old loser memories pissed her off. The indicator hung at twenty-four mph and she had more in reserve. The furtive awed and fearful glances coming from these hard-body boys and spandex girly-girls felt good. They were appropriate responses to her superiority.

    Feel free to critique. Novel has not been released.
    Jodie – lots of excellent guidelines linked with this topic. Thanks!

  5. In my current WIP, my central POV character Brenda Contay, a journalist, arrives at a crazy-persons’ church in Florida. She’s there to interview the nut-case pastor, but first Brenda has to deal with one of the faithful:

    I hadn’t turned off the ignition before a man was standing next to my car.
    I think he wanted to intimidate me by suddenly appearing, but it didn’t work. The overall impression was too TV, too contrived. He was young-old, looking down at me through opaque MATRIX sunglasses. He was young in terms of the mosaic tattoos covering his arms below his body-builder black tee shirt, but too old to have such tats. Maybe fifty. He had his hands folded over his crotch, as though waiting for orders. I checked his hands, slightly disappointed not to see LOVE and HATE tattooed on the knuckles.

    • I like it, Barry! This character sounds interesting and intriguing. You’ve got me wondering why a 50-year-old would have the muscles and body-builder shirt and tattoos. And why would he be waiting for orders? Hmmm…. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  6. Great tips Jodie. The thing I like about reading TKZ as I work on my WIP is that I get reminded of stuff on the fly and say, “Oh yeah, that’s what it needs.”

    From ICE HAMMER:

    Second Lieutenant Liu Xinying leaned back in his chair smiling triumphantly as he watched lines of code scroll across the screen before him. The numbers and symbols spoke to him with the power of a lover’s whispers, sending tingles of pleasure down his spine. The bastards would not see it coming. He tugged at the uniform shirt that looked like a sack dropped over his scrawny frame. Today he felt like a real soldier. Boyish as he was, none of the other men dared harass him. The kind of war he waged had little need for big muscles but nonetheless required strength, speed and endurance of the mind if not the body. And ruthlessness. No one in all the millions of soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army possessed those qualities like Liu Xinying.

    He glanced at the video feed for the hidden camera he kept aimed at Colonel Lim’s clerk, Mai Hong. In the barracks they called her ‘the boss’s sexretary’. Maybe now she would see him as a man. She rose her chest and stretched, chest straining against her uniform blouse, as if she knew he was watching. His mouth twitched in a lustful grin. Once the Americans started screaming, Mai Hong would have no choice but to see him as the hero of the revolution.

  7. Jodie, another home run, essential article for writers seeking to polish their craft. Of all the great advice you gave me when we worked together, the one I cherish most is to make every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter count.

    As you keep reminding writers, if it doesn’t serve a higher plot purpose, and if it doesn’t move the narrative forward, then it’s vanity writing and it probably needs to go.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Jodie!

  8. Jodie, this is amazing. I can’t imagine a way to improve upon it. My brain fogs over when I think of all the work you put into it. Thank you so much for every bit of it, it looks wonderful.

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