Monday, June 7, 2010

Fleshing Out With Focus

We've probably all found ourselves needing to flesh out a scene. I tend to be a minimalist writer, especially in early drafts, so I often have to add more words to make my scenes come to life.

What do I do when I flesh out a scene? I try to imagine that scene in as much detail as possible, filling out empty or undefined spaces in my mind.

Sometimes, however, I hit a snag. I come up with a new detail that is making the scene richer, but it also creates a new problem.

Here's an example from my novel Rooster. In an early draft, I have my protagonist coming straight into his kitchen where he is about to find out that his brother has been murdered:

Bao is surprised to find his wife waiting for him in the kitchen when he arrives home from work.

This entry into the scene gets the job done, but as I was reading the book through, I felt like it was too sudden, given what had happened in the previous chapter.

I decided to back up a little, so that the reader gets to meet Bao at work, shortly before he comes home. This was where the new problem appeared:

Burbank, California--A thief is suspected at Behrin Metals, a gray factory building whose only adornments are rows of gloomy tinted windows. During the lunch break, several workers discover food missing from their coolers. Bao himself loses two days' worth of meals...

At first I thought this was quite clever. Without being boring, I was able to describe my protagonist's place of work, and part of his normal life before the conflict--the news of his brother's death--arrives. I kept it short, only two paragraphs, before I had Bao go home where he received the bad news.

But, the question that nagged at me was, "What about the thief?" Of course I had no idea what happened to the thief. He or she was really just a device to get information across. In my attempt to be creative, I had introduced a detail that led to more questions. I fleshed out in a way that made the story less focused.

I corrected the problem by still having Bao at work, but having him face a much more mundane problem.

Burbank, California--There is a backup at the bending station of Behrin Metals, Incorporated. The workers are losing traction under their boots because of some slippery rubber mats the new Assistant Lead ordered at discount.

I felt like this still had some interest in it without being interesting enough so as to lead the story in a new direction. I fleshed out the scene while still keeping it focused on the main conflict at hand.

So, if you're like me, and you end up having to flesh out areas of your stories, ask yourself if the new details you're creating are leading the reader down a wrong path. Sometimes a new detail or tidbit creates more questions than it does answers.

Have you had to flesh out a scene? How did you choose the details you used?

(Note added later: Check out Jeannie's comment for some great advice!)


  1. Great post! One of the techniques I use for fleshing out a scene is to keep pushing it further and further in terms of the dialogue exchange between characters. I find that I sometimes need to write thru the "original scene" to get to the "real scene." Obviously, this doesn't always work.

    And then I do have to see if I've added any new and distracting details. If the new details move the story forward and develop character then I lean toward keeping them.

  2. I'm only just learning how important each detail is, how when we layer anything--whether it's setting or emotional reaction--it needs to be tied to the driving force of the story.

  3. Mary, exactly! I'm getting better at avoid that, but the problem still comes up for me.

    Jeannie, that is fantastic advice! I'll mention your comment in the post if you don't mind. Yes, I've been fortunate enough to be in the same situation from time to time and it really is helpful (and a lot of fun) to write this way. It's like fitting together puzzle pieces.

    Paul, "pushing it further" is a great way of putting it. I was trying to describe the same thing in my post. I do end up pushing myself when I flesh out, and sometimes I push in the wrong direction and have to backtrack again.

    Tricia, It's a good lesson, huh? The books I admire most are the ones where all the details help to build to a higher goal. Sometimes I might not see it in a first reading, and then I love it even more when details that seemed random actually were not at all. Having said that, I can still appreciate some meandering in a story if it's interesting!

  4. I used to over write so that I could take stuff out. I've just started the minimalist approach over the weekend. I haven't started to flesh out yet but I'll let you know how it goes.

  5. Nothing like adding a fix that makes a scene more broke than it was. I like this post, for it shows how an author refines his work as well as how easy it is to get the scene accidentally tangled up.


  6. Anne, that's interesting. Why did you decide to approach your writing from the other direction? I've done the opposite. I've tried to overwrite more, but I naturally drift back toward the minimalist approach.

    Genie, thanks for the clarification. I knew you were Jeannie, but I didn't know Jeannie was you in this case, if that makes sense.

    Malcolm, I'm glad you liked the post. It was something I stumbled upon recently, so I thought I'd share it since Scott encourages us to put up more actual examples of our writing.

  7. Excellent post, and, sure, I must do this often. I suspect that non-outlining (on the page) writers in particular do more fleshing out later: their first-drafts are semi-outline-ish. At least mine are. Though I've usually in-my-head outlined and have extensive notes written down before I begin first-drafting long works.

  8. In answer to your question Davin, I think I'm trying to get the first draft done in any way, shape or form that I can. I wrote 2500 words in about 90 minutes the other day so I thought that was pretty good. I really only wrote the bare bones minimum, like a notey-outline kind of thing, with dialogue and scene directions, and minimal setting. I KNOW I can go back and fill in later. Oh, how I can fill in. But for right now, I've sort of put myself on a deadline -- 1 July -- because I'm going back to RI for the 4th and I'd like to tell my family, "Oh, well, I've written TWO books and one is out on submission." They won't care one way or the other but it will make me feel less like a dirge.

  9. I like the minimalist feel, and I strive for it all the time but can't quite seem to get there. Honestly, I'm not sure if I overwrite or underwrite. I think it depends on the project. When I underwrite, filling in details never seems to be a problem except when I run into the very problem you've shown here. Interestingly enough, though, I've had some of those extraneous details lead to plot twists that work out in the story's favor! I like it when that happens.

  10. FP, Yeah, I often think there isn't much different between my first drafts versus an outliner's outline, as far as how fleshed out scenes are. Maybe an outline is more organized though. I've been trying to sit with my stories in my head longer. It takes a lot of patience!

    Anne, that's funny about you wanting to say that you have two books under your belt. I totally understand what that's like! I can't wait to say that I've written multiple books.

    Michelle, good point. Yes, sometimes an initial wrong turn can guide your story to an even better place. I embrace that when I'm working on something that's in its early stages. With late-stage stuff, these new turns are just trouble.

  11. Wow - haven't clicked through since the new design...beautiful! :-)

    I'm a lean writer too - I have a post scheduled for tomorrow that is actually kind of similar to this, only it's focused on "cold" actions...laundry lists that need "something" to bring them to life. I've been trying hard to flesh out more in the first draft...but it's definitely not as natural, and takes me a lot longer. Always nice to know I'm not the only one. ;-)

    I challenge myself to keep the basic sentences I started with, and just build on them if the only thing that's wrong is that they're "lean". Add introspection, description or anything that will take what I already wrote and just make it "matter" more. I try not to change the original too much unless I've already decided to rewrite the entire scene (or story *sigh*).

  12. Davin, yes, later stages are no good for this. That's why I'm glad I usually overwrite.

  13. Jamie, I'm glad you like our new look. I think every once in awhile Michelle just likes to revamp the place. I'll check out your post, and you've given me a good idea for another post as well!

    Michelle, I'm usually glad when I overwrite as well. I wish I could do it more often.

  14. I overwrite dialogue and usually end up cutting a lot of it. But scenes and transitions are things I tend to sketch in, especially in first drafts. My revisions always result in longer manuscripts.

    I agree that it's tempting to add intriguing details, and it's easy for this new intrigue to drag the story off course. In my current work, I know that there are loose ends whose entire threads should be removed later, not tied up at the end, because they were just possibly-clever ideas I had along the way but in the end are only going to be distractions. I can find a less distracting way.


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