Characterization: Layers of a Scene #amwriting

Our characters feel real to us, their creators, but the trick is making them seem natural to our readers.

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcWhen I begin writing a first draft, I try to approach writing each scene as if I were shooting a movie. We know that each conversation is an event that must advance the story, but it must also give us glimpses of who each person is.

To that end, dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  • Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  • Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  • Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  • Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

However, dialogue is only one layer of the scene. We try to establish the world environment in the opening pages but world-building is an ongoing task and is a foundational layer of each scene.

  • We continue world-building by showing our characters as they interact with the immediate environment.

In the first stage of the rough draft, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationships, with those goals in mind.

  • Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. I use minimal speech tags for this because I want to get the discussion written down the way I hear it.

I do this in short bursts, getting the basic words down. It’s a two-stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written. Here is an example of four lines of dialogue:

Ann: “What are you doing?”

Jon: “Oh, just drawing.”

Ann: “Drawing what?”

Jon: “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

good_conversations_LIRFmemeHaving the fundamentals of the conversation to work with sharpens the scene in my mind, enabling me to frame it properly. Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add the scenery. Then, I insert the props and add the speech tags. The interaction grows, shedding more light on their relationship.

So let’s take those four lines of dialogue and set them in a kitchen. We have two characters who are wary of each other and have radically different views of their relationship.

The following day, when Ann came down for coffee, she found her stepson was once again working on something in his sketchbook. He stood when she entered, gathering his pens. “The coffee should be ready.”

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

Jon’s expression was closed, indecipherable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” He shut his sketchbook and stood, intending to leave her to her breakfast.

“Show me. Please.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no. People want real art, not fairies and dragons.”

“Art is not reserved just for some elite aficionado. Everyone has a different idea of it, and what appeals to you doesn’t appeal to everyone. This is how I earn my living, even though it’s not up to your standards.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee. “You could do so much better. I’ve tried to steer you toward success, but—”

“Stop it. I’m happy with my life.” Jon reclaimed the sketchbook. “Tim was right. Coming back was a mistake. We did it because Dad asked us to and because it’s Christmas.” He opened the door to the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast, and don’t start in on Tim when he gets up.” The door closed behind him.

Ann gripped her cup. Where had she gone wrong? Why couldn’t the boys see how much she cared? All she had ever wanted was for them to be successful and happy.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterMy above sample is not perfect, as it is from the first draft of a short story I never actually finished, but you get the idea. We learn more about the characters’ relationship with each other and see their place in this environment. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Jon, one of our protagonists, has risen first and made coffee. He sits in the kitchen drawing in his sketchbook. An adversarial conversation ensues. Later he gathers his pens, stands, and leaves the room.

Dialogue: The conversation illuminates long-simmering differences between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas. It also hints that the father wants the family to be reunited.

Internal Dialogue: Ann’s thoughts offer us the first glimpse of her reasoning. Tim and Jon are stepbrothers, but they were raised together and consider themselves brothers. Ann loves them fiercely, Jon as much as Tim, and we see the first indication of her inner battle in the story. We learn more about the family dynamics that must be overcome if their Christmas is to be saved.

Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed-off kitchen symbolizes her closed-off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off.

As the story progresses, we find Ann is at odds with her own son as well as her stepson and is gradually losing her husband to dementia. She’s afraid and needs emotional support from Tim and Jon but is her own worst enemy.

No matter the plot or setting, each scene we write should be formed of layers:

  • environment
  • props
  • characters

chekhovs gun layers of a sceneSet dressing (the props you place in the scene) shows the immediate environment. Having characters interact with props provides opportunities to insert hints that a deeper backstory exists. However, only have them interact with props that are organic or crucial to the story. This eliminates the problem of Chekhov’s Gun.

Because they are layered into the work, the scenery and props become unobtrusive. This allows the conversation to show the reader everything they need to know about our characters at a singular moment in time. It also gives us logical places for introspection and foreshadowing, integral aspects of pacing.

I can get the words down before I forget them by starting with the dialogue that will form the basis for each scene. Then I can concentrate on visualizing the conversation’s setting and decide what props to insert. The items I place in that scene must show something about the characters who interact with them.

As the story progresses along the plot arc, readers are gradually shown the world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

We could put that exact dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting, sci-fi, or any other genre. The book’s plot would change what the conversation reveals about the two characters.

Each scene has a purpose, which is to reveal information and move the plot forward. All it takes is a few lines of dialogue and a moment of introspection on the part of the point-of-view character.

Characterization definitionBy beginning with the conversation and envisioning each scene as if I were filming a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. The reader’s mind will supply the details of the immediate setting depending on the clues I give.

We try to layer conversations and world-building to bring depth to our characters. When we do it right, the possibilities are endless.


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18 responses to “Characterization: Layers of a Scene #amwriting

  1. Excellent perspective on the process. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Ann and Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Now I want to know what happened between Ann and Jon! 😊.
    But this is an excellent post about how to ground characters into a scene.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic approach…I never considered paring it back at first….I tend to spew too many words on the first draft, and sometimes I think I talk over my characters unintentionally! 💞

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Johanna Flynn

    This is great! I tend to write dialogue easily, but had been haphazard in applying the other elements. Thanks for posting such a helpful method.

    Liked by 1 person