Scenes and Lasagna…It’s all About Layering

Writing a good scene is like baking good lasagna…it’s all about layering.  And with a name like Zanetti, I can bake lasagna.  (We’ll go through the deadly debate of red sauce or white sauce for polenta another day.)

After judging many contests the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a trend in some stories.  The action is awesome.  The dialogue is fantastic.  But something’s missing.  The feelings or thoughts that go along with the action are often just absent.  These give the reader more insight than mere actions, and these keep the reader in deep point of view.  So often we feel one thing and then say the opposite.

Take a typical discussion between the sexes.  Let’s pretend Kate just told George she doesn’t feel she can count on him.

“Do you want me to do something with this information?”  George asked.

“No.  Of course not.”  Kate kicked the door.

Yeah, right.  Her actions do speak loudly.  But what if we got an even better insight into Kate?

“Do you want me to do something with this information?”  George asked.

Yeah.  The jackass could shove it up his butt.  “No.  Of course not.”  Kate kicked the door, her hands clenching.  Good God, she might actually hit the man.

So often we’re hit over the head with layering emotions into scenes.  And yeah, scenes need emotion.  But they also need thought, and if it works for you, humor.  Get it all in there…not just the great action and dialogue.

For another example, let’s pretend we’re in Mary’s point of view.  This is the type of paragraph I’ve seen lately in contests:

Bob pulled a knife, the wicked edge gleaming in the harsh light.

Mary stepped back, putting both hands out.  “I called the police.  They know you’re here.”

A snarl curled his lip while anger glinted in his eye.  “That gives me time to kill you, now doesn’t it?”

“It won’t be as easy as you think.”

The above paragraph, like my last attempt at a three layer cake, just falls flat.  How about:

Bob pulled a knife, the wicked edge gleaming in the sharp light.

Fear ripped through Mary, catching the breath in her throat.  A roaring filled her ears.  She stepped back, putting both hands out.  “I called the police.  They know you’re here.”  Hurry.  They needed to hurry.  Crickets chirped outside.  No sirens yet.  God.  Could she keep him talking?

A snarl curled his lip while anger glinted in his eye.  “That gives me time to kill you, now doesn’t it?”

The psycho didn’t want to talk, he wanted to kill.  Three steps behind her stood the door.  He’d be on her too fast, she wouldn’t make it.  His knee.  She’d take out his knee with a kick.  “It won’t be as easy as you think.”

Now, I’m not saying this is great…it’s rough and I’d probably edit the heck out of it.  But you get the general idea.  And even though we’ve been in Mary’s head, the thoughts showed rather than told.  Her thought of “She’d take out his knee with a kick,” shows that she’s thinking, she’s a survivor and she’s going to fight.  I could’ve told you that.  But isn’t it more fun when it’s shown?

NOTE:  This guide first appeared at the Savvy Authors Learning Center.