Put Some Meat on those Bones
The goal with fleshing out a scene is to engage the reader and make a better story; the way to flesh out a scene is by giving detail. These details should be relevant, interesting, purposeful, descriptive, humorous, scary, disturbing, thought provoking, evocative, or explanatory. Or a million other things.
Ultimately, every detail you give to flesh out the story should be held to the standard of engaging the reader and making a better story, not giving detail to give detail to give detail to get dizzy running that hamster wheel logic.
The five senses
This is the most basic technique to describe a scene utilizing the ways humans perceive the world.
Sight, sound, feel, taste, and especially smell; smell is the most powerful sense for reproducing memories
There are many more techniques than the five senses and while they make a good fallback they shouldn’t be the only technique used and by my rule of thumb not more than all the other available techniques put together.
Establish geography, location
Scenes don’t take place in a white void (some do but you’ve got to have a reason for it) and if you don’t describe what exists around the characters then they have to carry the entirety of the scene.
What ground lays before the characters, what ground is behind them? If there’s a fight then how do the characters make use of their environment? If they need to set up camp how do the characters make use of their environment?
Has it rained lately? If so, the ground may still be wet, the leaves may glimmer, the smell of moss may be more prevalent. Come morning the characters might slip down the hill they were camping on.
People don’t just stand face to face with their arms by their sides to talk and talk and talk for the writer’s sake.
Where characters are placed, how they’re postured, and where they move can be used to paint the characters in the scene and explore their character
A lazy character may immediately sit on the couch and turn on the TV
If they’re also inconsiderate they might throw their entire weight into someone else’s couch without asking if they could use the couch
If the characters are looking for a clue on their quest for buried treasure or they’re scoping out a bar to meet their undercover contact helping with their organized crime investigation, we should know. That way we can walk in with the same desires as the protagonists. When they pan the room looking for the clue or the informant, we are as interested in what they find (or miss) as they are.
A conflict doesn’t have to be overt but adding a larger, hidden argument provides two sets of information at the same time adding depth and greater importance to the events. An argument over a lack of money vs. a need to keep a tradition alive can add new meaning to a family dinner where the parents disagree over where to send the family on vacation.
Planting and Paying off
Throw some breadcrumbs out that sound important to remember while simultaneously reward the careful reader with payoffs to information they retained earlier. This engages the reader and makes them pay attention to the details given in the scene.
Say a character’s skin tone matches their kitchen tiles.
A heavy pot falls onto the kitchen tile with a crash that alerts everyone in the house and set the dog off barking. The pot’s dented and the tile is cracked and then the character steps barefoot on one of the chips. Family members attempt to extract the sliver of tile from the character’s flesh but it’s hard to spot and causes a lot more screaming and pain than what would otherwise have occurred.
What’s in the cupboards and pockets?
This is something that can make the scene feel much larger than what’s presented. If a character opens up a cupboard for a bottle of pills or reaches in their pockets for a packed wallet then the idea is conjured that there can be other objects in other cupboards and pockets. Suddenly every nook and cranny and turnable stone becomes a source of speculation. “What’s behind there?” It could be a bunch of innocuous things but there’s more to the room than what’s described and the reader is the one concurring those images.
Room noise, running rivers, ocean waves, rain, wind, cars on a nearby highway, crickets, cicadas, dogs barking, wolves howling. These things create baseline for the scene so there’s always something going on. Even if the characters are silent there’s still the low crackling of the fire to turn to as a metaphor for their waning love for one another.
Weather’s great for setting a tone and as an impetus for characters’ actions. They could be stuck inside during a storm, bored or if there are kids, scared. Literal storm clouds. Eerie calmness. And as always, people could just talk about the weather.
Energy of the room
It sets the baseline for the space the characters occupy and what can be expected there. A nightclub packed with young, drunk men and women could see them fall over one another dancing, fights could break out, illegal drug use in the bathrooms. If the energy of the room is understood then details like someone walking out of the bathroom with an etched grin on their face could be readily interpreted.
Flesh it out ahead of time
We go into the scene knowing what is at stake, we know what’s important and what to keep an eye out for.
If the scenery was described beforehand in a way that stuck with the reader then when the characters arrive at the place and see the objects in it, they can evoke the prior descriptions preloaded into the reader’s subconscious memory.
A group of people are at a dinner at a restaurant. One character says, “My people really look up to me. That makes me happy,” and gets a dirty look from another character at their table. This doesn’t mean much on its own.
What can be established chapters and chapters before this scene is that the two characters are married, they met and fell in love in high school, one of the characters (let’s say the husband) got better grades in high school and because of that got accepted to a better college than his wife, he’s in middle management, she’s not, they work in the same field (let’s say electrical engineering), if they worked together he’d be her boss, he acts like that is the case in their day to day life around the house and in public and earlier at that dinner.
Now the offhanded comment, “My people really look up to me. That makes me happy,” and the retorting dirty look have much more impact. It has a deep-rooted reasoning for why it matters and what it means to the wife and why she replied as she did.
Have the reader play detective
Give the reader a marked up table, on that table is drained bottle of rotgut and a single glass. In the kitchen is a doorless cupboard full of dusty, cloudy glasses the same as the one on the table. The reader can flesh out the scene in their minds of how these things relate to each other and the conclusion they will reach will be greater than the sum of its parts.
More fleshing out for more time spent per scene
If you’re gonna add detail then add it where it counts. If the character’s walk down an innocuous hallway once to get from point A to point B then the hallway isn’t worth going on about. If the characters are conversing about something important or going through an internal struggle then don’t distract from those events with the pattern on the floor or the way the AC grate is secured to the wall.
This is a good exercise for fleshing out a scene. Make up your own or pull something from what you’ve written.
“The air, a dry book paper smell to it, stole moisture from his eyes. He wanted a nap but not in the library where any dream would be plagued by proctored academia.”
Why does the dry book paper smell matter? What’s the importance of the air in the library?
The dry book paper smell activates the senses of the reader placing them into the scene with their own memories of a library or bookstore. The library’s air is important because it exhausts the character’s eyes and makes them want sleep which is counterproductive because the smell of the books will influence their dreams to be as stagnant and boring as their waking reality of reading in the library.
Here the details play off of one another to create something of greater importance, they draw the reader in through a shared experience, and they establish a conflict between what the character wants and their current circumstance. It’s also comedic that the same device of sensory detail which pulls the reader into a fantasy prevents the character from fantasizing about anything except their reality.
2 thoughts on “How to Flesh Out a Scene”
I have trouble meeting word counts and I’ve deduced that the reason why this is is because my scenes are so bare they could probably double up as a Spartan’s bedroom. These are some great tips, so thanks for sharing, Colin!