Bring Your Story to Life by Digging Beneath the Surface

Foxprint writing editing character

Bring Your Story to Life by Digging Beneath the Surface

One morning this week I was walking my dog, happily chatting on the phone to a close friend while eyeballing a yard I frequently pass, when I heard behind me, “Hey!”

I turned around to greet whatever neighbor was hailing me and saw a man standing in the yard I’d been admiring. I waved, wanting to compliment him for how much I always enjoyed his gorgeous rockscaping, but reluctant to interrupt my conversation with my friend.

“What the hell was that?” the man said with an affect that didn’t scream neighborly greeting.

“What?” I asked—genuinely.

“You let your dog pee on my bushes. I have signs posted all over the yard.”

Indeed, he does, and normally I’m mindful of keeping my pup from lifting his leg as we walk on the sidewalk that runs by his yard. But today I was distracted and hadn’t noticed.

While my friend waited, there ensued a tense exchange between me and this man—despite my apology—that culminated in his instructing me to not walk by his yard anymore (on the public sidewalk) and me responding that that was unlikely to happen, before I reined in my annoyance and wished him a good day.

I hate when people are angry at me, and I’m quick to take responsibility for offenses–sometimes even when I probably don’t need to (though in this case the man had a point). And often an exchange like this could ruin my morning, making me berate myself for my mistake and feel unsettled.

But I’ve been working on these automatic responses lately, and instead I thought about this man’s reality, and my own.

I’d been happily lost in a great conversation with a good friend about our writing and creativity–topics I love. It was a lovely day after an astonishing storm last night and I was enjoying being outside with my dog, stretching my legs, and admiring the man’s meticulously designed rock garden. All my thoughts were positive and I felt connected–to my friend, to the outdoors, my dog, and even the faceless creator of the yard that always gives me such pleasure.

Clearly he was having a very different kind of day. Maybe every person who walks by ignores his signs and lets their dog pee in a yard he obviously cares enormously about and puts a lot of effort into. Maybe he just had a fight with his partner. Maybe he feels invisible or powerless or disregarded in other areas of his life, and my inattention to his preferences rubbed salt in the wound. Maybe he’s just a fist-shaking cranky misanthrope.

I can’t know his situation—only my own. And that’s the place I react and respond from. He reacts from his own reality—and has no idea what’s going on inside me.

Knowing and showing more of those layers can add facets and impact to every scene in your story.

Each of your characters operates out of her own reality as well, the story in her own head: how she’s feeling, her mood and state of mind, what’s going on in her life in general and at that moment, her history and relationship with the other character(s), etc.

Each of your characters operates out of her own reality, the story in her own head.

Their relationships with other characters stem from all that is going on inside them, combined with whatever is similarly going on inside the other character(s) in the scene—none of us interact in a vacuum. Those below-the-radar inner lives dictate a vast amount of the tenor of our exchanges with others.

Yet often I see authors neglect that juicy bottom two-thirds of the iceberg–like the nonverbals I wrote about recently here—in favor of showing mostly just what lies above the surface: the dialogue and action.

The “backstory” and context of what each of us was thinking and feeling and experiencing in my strained neighborhood encounter dictated the course of our “scene.” If he’d come out less confrontationally, for instance, or had I not gotten defensive, we might have instead connected over our mutual appreciation for his dedicated yardwork.

If I hadn’t been working on my own reactivity, I might have escalated the situation instead of trying to defuse it—which might have ruined my mood for the rest of the day, or made me feel bad about how I handled it.

Or we might have had a different exchange if we hadn’t both been making certain assumptions about one another: he that I was a thoughtless dog owner ignoring his clearly stated request, me that that he was an angry curmudgeon who has unreasonable expectations for property that borders a public sidewalk. Assumptions are a powerful way to create conflict between and within your characters, which I wrote about here.

Perhaps our confrontation resulted from illusions either of us labor under, those broad misconceptions we may form about people or how the world works, usually based on some formative event in our past (see this post for more): For example, maybe he was ill treated as a child and his illusion is that people are basically thoughtless or rude and you have to be on guard and stand your ground; perhaps I’ve had experiences with habitually combative people in my past and mine could be something like, There’s no pleasing some folks, or Some people just want to pick a fight.

My friend on the other end of the call heard only the words of the exchange—she missed most of the nuance of what was actually going on between us, just as in your stories, readers can miss out on the vividness and specificity of subtext, undercurrents, depth, etc., if you show only the dialogue and action and neglect the richness and full range of who your characters are and their individual situations.

Our inner lives, histories, and situations are key components of how we act, react, think, feel, believe, behave, comport ourselves, respond, and so on, and create so much of the texture of a scene and the reader’s impressions of a character. They dictate the tenor of our interactions, and sometimes entire relationships.

Adding all that depth and richness to your scenes and stories gives you powerful tools in your writer’s toolbox to engage, invest, and affect your readers.

How about you, authors–how do you bring scenes fully to life for your readers? How do you let us into your characters’ direct perspectives so we become part of the scene, experience it with your protagonists? Where do you struggle in painting a full picture in your scenes and plunging readers into it?

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Kristi Leonard
    June 10, 2021 7:37 pm

    I was struggling with a rewrite of a scene in which I needed to add some preamble to get us to the inciting incident at the start of my novel. This essay pointed exactly to where I need to go with it. I love the idea that your character could be minding her own business and thinking highly of someone, only to have him react to a situation that should be innocent, but because of his perspective he completely over-reacts. Thank you for always making me think deeper and push harder.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 11, 2021 1:57 am

      I love what it can add to a scene to consider both perspectives and how it can influence characters’ behavior and actions. Glad it was useful, Kristi–thanks for stopping by!

  • This is a great example of how important it is to think about what goes on in the heads of ALL your characters in a scene, especially if the story is only from one POV. I write from first person POV, so I take a read on what is going on in other characters’ minds in a scene. Much like the yard guy, I have to ask questions like, are they having a good day? Are they worried about something? How do they feel in this moment? It’s important, because I want to make sure that their dialogue and body language match what’s going on in their minds, because we only get to see the outward part.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 11, 2021 1:58 am

      I love that, Cate–it really adds depth to a scene to flesh out not just the POV characters, but the other players too. Thanks for the comment!


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