The people-watching writing prompt is a good starting point for any exercise, and if you want to improve complexity in your writing, all you need to do is add a little scene dissection.
Improving Complexity with Scene Dissection
Now, in film, scene dissection is the way a single scene may be broken down into multiple camera shots from different angles. That’s not exactly what I mean. From a writing standpoint, scene dissection is very literal. It is breaking down the scene into all of its parts – different actions, moments, motions, sounds, etc.
When you’re writing from one character’s perspective (or even a couple of character’s perspectives), it’s very easy to focus only on what they’re doing and the most basic details that the story needs to be told. Then, you finish the novel and realize that it feels kind of bare, like it’s only the skeleton of the story. That’s when the story needs a few more layers of complexity.
Complexity is not the easiest thing to write into your story, but it does have a lot of advantages if done well. First of all, it makes your story less predictable. For example, when there are only 4 side characters in the story, and 3 have been eliminated as suspects, you pretty much know who did it (or you’re breaking promises to your readers and probably p*$$ing them off). To make a story less predictable and more realistic, there should be not only more characters but more moments that may or may not be directly part of the plot.
It’s the may-or-may-not-be part that really makes it work as a reader. The main character buys a candy bar from a gas station and has a conversation with the cashier. Is that conversation going to be important later? Maybe. Maybe, it’ll provide the epiphany that leads the main character to solve the crime. Or maybe not. Maybe, it was only there to provide a little comic relief.
Here’s the thing though: even if it’s comic relief, it’s also acting as a red herring for moments that actually will be important later. Like the number of characters, the number of seemingly unimportant scenes makes it harder or easier to guess what’s going on. If the main character only has one conversation like that, it pretty much has to be important.
So if there are too few characters/scenes, then, it gives away how important it is. But what if there are too many? Well, then, it gets confusing and overwhelming (for lazy readers at the very least). That’s why a good level of complexity can be a difficult balancing act. And that’s why scene dissection can help.
Life is all about complexity. It’s really good at it, and we’re really good at blocking it out to focus on the bits that are important to us at that moment (usually). Dissecting scenes to figure out what to include goes something like this:
- Go to a bar, coffeeshop, or public space where you can watch life go by around you.
- Pick a person or a group of people.
- Watch how the person or group focuses on its goal (eating lunch, chatting, writing, flirting, etc.).
- Watch what happens around them.
- Pay special attention to which events around them get their attention. Maybe, a waitress drops a tray, and the entire table looks up. Maybe, one of them gets bumped and looks up, but no one else notices. Maybe, one of them isn’t really paying attention to what the rest are discussing and is watching a little kid about to drop a glass across the room.
It’s that pattern of interaction that you’re looking for. Watch a couple of different groups, and then try to use what you see in your writing. Experiment with writing the same scene from different perspectives: is the main character the man who’s ignoring the people he’s sitting with and watching the kid, or the person who’s so intent on the conversation that he barely notices the waitress drop the tray? Depending on which person’s perspective you’re writing from, you’re going to include different parts of the scene.
You can also try it in different situations. Obviously, what gets people’s attention in a noisy, bustling place is different from what gets people’s attention in a quieter, emptier setting. When it’s quiet at night, a creaking board might be enough to make you jump. On a crowded barn-style dance floor, you’d never notice it. Observing a variety of situations helps develop your ability to set many scenes and keep the plot moving through them without being obvious.
It’s all about adding complexity to a single scene without losing the flow and readability. Practice enough at this micro level, and you will have a really handy tool when it comes to putting together a longer story. How else are you gonna practice it? (Seriously – I’ll take all the options I can get!)