Saturday, July 20, 2013

Layering a Scene

When I write, I have a basic idea of a scene, and then I make multiple passes over it to add details and significance. The whole process may take days—or weeks—until I’m satisfied. I call this process “layering” and it’s something I’d like to share today.

Plot, or what happens, is the basis for a scene. If nothing happens relative to the overall plot, the scene should be cut. But just recording what happens isn’t enough to make a scene memorable or create enough of a hook to keep the reader involved. To do that a writer needs to put flesh on the bare bones of the plot. That requires using these tools in the writer’s toolbox: the five senses, the character’s emotions, elements of conflict, and symbolism (if possible).

Consider the following bit of plot:

She paused at the foot of the stairs. The doors above were open. Swallowing, she went in.

Let’s flesh this out first by adding the five senses with time and place:
  • Who? Name the character.
  • Where exactly is she?
  • When? What’s the time of day? Day of the week? Year? Season?
  • What does she see? Texture, color, temperature? Objects?
  • What does she smell? Hear? Dialogue?
  • Are there others—people, animals—in this scene?
 Now add the character’s emotions:
  • How does she feel about being in this place?
 Bring in elements of the conflict, either main or contributing:
  • Why is she here?
  • What’s at stake? (story question)
 Enhance symbolism, if possible:
  • Stairs can represent choices and decisions. A character can go up to something new, or down into something bad, or refuse to participate and remain aloof.
·         Are these stairs central to some particular conflict or memory?

Layering means to go through your scene as often as necessary to add pieces of “flesh” to it. From the bare bones you can construct something meaningful and evocative that also advances your plot, reveals character, creates conflict, and—even—suggests symbolism.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Jennifer Bryant halted at the foot of the courthouse stairs.
Twenty-four granite steps, two flights of twelve with a six-foot wide landing in between, stretched toward the colonnaded portico above. As a child she’d raced up these steps and dashed from end to end amid three-story high pillars only to stand panting in the middle at the precise spot where the boulevard ran straight to the steps.
“All roads lead to Rome,” her grade school teacher had told her. McKintock County wasn’t Rome, but to her fourth-grade self, that spot up there had been the center of the universe.
All around her, a steady stream of people flowed upward, not a single one pausing at that special spot. Men clad in suits, ties flapping, women dressed in conservative brown, black and tan, all carrying briefcases in one hand and cups of varying descriptions in the other. The strong smell of fresh coffee wafted in their wakes.
She breathed the aroma, and wished for the third time in as many minutes she’d stopped at Coffee Joe’s for a brew of her own. Having something to cling to just might galvanize her into taking that first step.
When had the simple act of climbing these steps, passing under those Doric columns and entering her workplace of the last six years become so daunting?

From three starter sentences, we’ve expanded to a name, particular place, sights, smell, a memory, emotion, and a story question.

Now I invite you to share. What’s your process for fleshing out a scene? How do you make your plot come alive?


  1. Great post! Often we learn the parts of writing like plot, character, symbolism, etc, but not how to synthesize them. This shows, clearly and beautifully, how to build rich stories. Thank you!