How to Write Stronger Scenes: Add More Depth and Detail
All stories are, at one level, a collection of scenes.
It can be tough to get scenes right. Maybe the action and surroundings were so vivid in your head, but they just haven’t translated well to the page.
We’re going to take a look at how to write stronger scenes by adding more depth and detail. Before we dig in, I want to clear up a misunderstanding that some writers have when it comes to putting more depth and detail into their scenes.
What Adding Depth and Detail Doesn’t Mean
Some writers try to strengthen their scenes by adding more description. This can help in some cases: if you’re a writer like me, who tends to underdo description in the first draft, then putting more of it in should work well.
But your scene won’t have more depth just because you’ve described the characters’ surroundings at length. While more description means more detail, you don’t want to bog things down with irrelevant detail.
So adding depth and detail means:
- Making your scene more meaningful and impactful (depth).
- Adding relevant descriptions and actions (detail).
How can you tell if your scene needs work? Here are some issues you might spot.
Five Problems That Might Signal a Lack of Depth and Detail in Your Scenes
#1: Your Scene is Over Really Quickly
While short scenes can work well, especially in a short story, an unusually short scene can be a sign that you haven’t dug deep enough.
Perhaps your characters have a meaningful conversation that’s over in the space of a page. You may feel that the amount of story time this takes up seems skewed, compared with how important that conversation is to the plot. This scene is likely to be one that you want to extend and deepen.
#2: Your Scene Has Little or No Emotional Weight
Not every scene in your novel is going to move the reader to tears, or make them laugh, but you normally want your scene to carry some emotional weight.
As readers, if we feel uninterested in the characters’ plight, we’re unlikely to read on. This is why bad things need to happen to good characters, and why scenes can fall flat if it feels like there’s nothing at stake.
#3: Your Scene Has No Conflict
All stories run on conflict. If there’s no conflict, then your protagonist will simply get what they want, when they want it, without any internal, interpersonal, or environmental opposition. That’s a nice thing in real life … but it doesn’t make for much of a story.
Maybe you’ve written a scene where things go far too smoothly for your character. No-one pushes back against what they want to do or achieve, and they don’t have any internal doubts or external factors to overcome. This scene likely needs to be re-examined and rewritten.
#4: Your Scene Isn’t Grounded in the Setting
I’ll admit this is a problem that I have a lot! I’m often focused on my characters in any given scene, and I don’t pay enough attention to where the scene is taking place. This can lead to a sense of characters just talking and acting in a void.
Scenes that aren’t grounded in the setting are scenes that could be easily transposed somewhere else. The environment around your characters – whether that’s a busy pub, a quiet train station late at night, or a rural farm – just isn’t having an impact.
#5: Your Scene Has Talking, But No Action
Do your characters tend to talk without doing anything? While some scenes will be dialogue-heavy, too much dialogue with too little action can seem stilted and unrealistic. It can also lead you to write conversations where characters chat on and on without anything happening.
The fix for this isn’t always to add more depth (sometimes, it means cutting a lot of the dialogue – or even the whole scene). However, if you need the conversation to take place, rebalancing the amount of dialogue and action could be the way forward.
How to Add More Depth and Detail to Your Scene
If you want to dig deeper and create a richer, more detailed, and impactful scene, here are some things you can try:
#1: Give Your Characters Something to Do
If your scene has characters talking, or a character thinking about something, then it can help make it more engaging if they’re doing something at the same time – especially if it’s something that’s causing them difficulties or that makes the situation more tense.
Maybe that difficult conversation between partners takes place on a fraught car journey, with one person trying to drive and one navigating.
Maybe that realisation your character comes to about her past happens while she’s trying desperately to balance her budget and figure out how to afford food for the rest of the month.
Maybe your character learns a horrible secret about his best friend while he’s staying late at work, trying to fix a problem before the boss finds out.
By giving your characters something to do, you can raise the stakes, add tension, and make your scene more interesting and impactful.
#2: Use More Senses to Describe the Setting
When you’re describing a character’s surroundings, it’s very easy to fall back on what they can see. Try adding in some of the other senses, too (though don’t go overboard here – there’s no need to shoehorn in senses that don’t really fit).
You could also think about how the things you describe might impact your characters. For instance, if it’s a noisy setting, this might be annoying or prevent your characters from easily hearing one another.
#3: Move the Scene to a Different Location
Maybe you’ve written a scene that takes place somewhere very straightforward, like a character’s living room. Moving the scene to a different location could add extra depth. A conversation that takes place easily in private might be stilted and have to have layers of meaning in public.
You could also:
- Move the scene to a more isolated location – where help would not be readily available.
- Move the scene to a challenging environment – perhaps placing your characters outside in bad weather.
- Have the scene take place somewhere that makes it difficult for your character to get away – like an aeroplane, boat, rural cottage (if they don’t have their own transport), or even a school or workplace that they can’t leave.
#4: Include More Conflict in Your Scene
Conflict is at the heart of your story. When you’re strengthening a scene, adding conflict doesn’t mean just having characters bicker for the sake of it. (A personality clash might, of course, be an important part of your plot.)
You could add more internal conflict, by having a character struggling to take the right course of action. If your scene involves two characters meeting when the protagonist returns the other character’s lost wallet, you could put your protagonist in a position where they’re struggling for money and are very tempted to keep the money in the wallet.
You could also add more conflict between people: perhaps your protagonist’s sidekick, instead of going along with their plan, raises an important and deep-seated objection to it. Or, you could have environmental conflict, where something about the setting or the character’s society makes it tough for them to pursue their story goals.
#5: Add (Or Remove) a Character to Change the Dynamic in the Scene
Perhaps you’ve written a scene with two characters having a conversation, but it seems to fall flat. Adding in a third character could shake things up and make that conversation more impactful.
Conversely, if you have a scene with several characters, you might find that taking one out helps, as it lets you focus more attention on the others. Perhaps leaving two characters together who emphatically do not want to be in the same room / sharing the same Uber / etc could lead to more conflict and drive your story forward.
#6: Include More Action Around the Dialogue
What are your characters doing as they talk? If they’re not really doing anything, think about how you could change that. Even small things, like showing a character’s body language, or describing what they’re looking at (and what they’re noticing about it), can add more depth to your scene.
This is also a good way to avoid having too many dialogue tags. The actions can work as dialogue beats, letting you know who’s speaking without having to constantly write “John said”.
#7: Make the Scene Pull Its Weight
If your scene feels a bit thin, could you make it do double-duty? Perhaps the main point of your scene is for a specific event to happen – say, your protagonist needs to get fired from their job.
You can also use that scene to help do other important things in your story, like revealing or developing character. Maybe you want to show how your normally meek protagonist has a tough streak, or how they’re resourceful in difficult times.
#8: Get In Late, Get Out Early
This is a great tip from my editor Lorna Fergusson: get into your scene late, and get out early. Don’t spend a long time setting the scene before anything actually happens … and don’t let your scene drag on once the main action is over.
If your scene drifts onto the page with your characters all getting into place, or with them slowly warming up to the real point of a conversation, you’re using up space without really giving your scene any depth. Cutting the start of the scene, and developing the main part of it to make it more impactful, will give you a much stronger scene overall.
#9: Use the Third Person Limited Perspective
Many contemporary novels – probably the majority – are written in the third person limited perspective. This means using your character’s name (rather than “I”) for the narrative, but keeping the perspective tied to them – so you’re not telling the reader about things that your character couldn’t know about.
The third person limited perspective helps ground the scene in your character’s perceptions. You can add depth to your descriptions, for instance, by showing the details that the viewpoint character notices. This can be a subtle but effective way of revealing character.
#10: Consider Where Your Characters Are in Their Character Arc
Part of adding depth and detail to your scenes means showing us how your characters are progressing (or not). Early in your story, your character might behave in one way; ten chapters in, you might want to show us how they’re changing. For instance, a character who would have gone along with a poorly thought-out plan without speaking up might have become confident enough to raise objections.
If you’ve moved scenes around as you drafted your novel, it’s particularly important to pay attention to where your characters are in their arc. What lessons have they learned? What problems have they overcome? What growth is still ahead for them? You can show us these things through their actions, through what they say (and don’t say), and even through the way in which they describe other characters.
Important: You won’t manage all of this on the first draft. Crafting strong scenes takes time, and you may well need several rounds of editing before you feel happy with the depth and the quality of detail in your scenes.
Ultimately, all the scenes in your novel should matter. You shouldn’t have any scenes that are simply filling time between plot points: instead, each scene should be there for a reason. If you have scenes that are falling flat or that feel thin and underdeveloped, that’s perfectly normal in early drafts – but make sure you’re spending time strengthening those through deliberate rewriting.
For more help with scenes, check out some of these other posts on Aliventures:
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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