7 Ways to "Flesh Out" a Scene
Written by
Elisabeth Kinsey
February 2013
Written by
Elisabeth Kinsey
February 2013


            You've finally found a reading "pal," a person you trust who answers all the burning questions you have about your manuscript, a person who has also published a little or a lot, who takes the kind of consideration with your manuscript that it needs to be "polished." You've given her your manuscript and are twiddling your thumbs with nervous energy. A silent wish in the back of your head is that you are waiting to hear what every writer wants to hear about their manuscript but seldom does: "It's done. Send it out."

            Instead of this coveted sentence, you read that it’s time you put your nose back to that old, tired grindstone. Your pal has sent you your reviewed manuscript with Track Changes all over its scenes. You see written in red text, "Flesh this scene out." 

            "What?  That scene's totally done," you think. Or, "That scene is so not important. Why do I have to 'flesh it out?'" When you finally sit down, after remorse, anger, plotting revenge on your dear friend and throwing darts at her picture, you realize she's right. The scene is abbreviated and you did more "telling" than "showing." Again. There's no way to avoid this earlier draft "tell" writing. Some writers are better than others at showing their characters’ actions and behaviors, but when your goal is to NaNoWriMo the heck out of a manuscript, telling becomes the rule, just to get it down.

            How do you get to all the "show?" You can look at all your "tell" markers and change them to “show,” but that’s assuming you have that kind of objectivity with your manuscript. Most of the time, you end up having your dear reader tell you where the “tells” are. Face it, telling is like breathing. We start to tell about our stories so they can come to life and like Flannery O'Connor quoted, we finally get to "know" what our story is.

            Great. So now you have the manuscript with red track changes through it and all these scenes to "flesh out. "Go deeper" you chant as you write and begin to accept a red track-changes note from your pal in your manuscript. Suddenly, your hands hover over your keyboard. You realize, you're lost. You honestly don't know what she means. What the @$*&()^&% is "fleshing out" anyway?

            Here's what I’ve found after throwing darts at my friend's picture and calming down enough to re-enter my manuscript for the three millionth time.

  1. Don’t kill your friend. She’s only the messenger and she’s almost always right. Remember, she’s been published.
  2. Get your muscle back. Chances are you are so sick and tired of this manuscript, you’d rather drop it off the edge of the Grand Canyon than “flesh out” even one of its scenes. Go to a passage of a past favorite book and type it out. One in the genre you are writing would help. While typing it, read it out loud. This will get you back into the “fresh zone,” where you’re actually trying on another author’s voice. (You may do this as much as you like to cultivate freshness. I like to type out Pam Houston. She never tells. It’s disgusting.)
  3. Stop playing with your cat, checking email, or tweeting “fleshing out a scene now.” Avoid distractions and free write about the scene. Is there a central image in the scene? Ask yourself what that image looks like and make a list of descriptions. In my memoir, I asked myself to list ten unique things my mom does to get her behaviors nailed down.
  4. Mine the guilt. Now that you have images in the scene or at least a list of random images, do any of them evoke a moment in time, a reaction, an admission? Did you feel guilt? How did that look? Was there envy there? How does envy look in a scene? Does it make your character tired? How does fatigue look?

            In J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Franny recounts a nightmare to her brother, Zooey. “‘Be quiet a second, or I'll forget it,’ Franny said. She stared avidly into space as nightmare recallers do. There were half circles under her eyes and other subtler signs that mark an acutely troubled young girl, but nonetheless no one could have missed seeing that she was a first class beauty.” Throughout Franny and Zooey, Franny’s mental breakdown is almost a character of its own. Why? Because Salinger makes every scene about it via descriptions such as “acutely troubled,” and “half circles” even amidst her beauty. Her fatigue and anxieties are key to her actions and reactions.

  1. Go crazy. What does your character care about? You hear this question all the time, but sometimes you just don't know. So replace it with this question: Where did that crazy notion to write your novel come from? What was that raw emotion you felt, that indignation that pushed you to take on this challenge? Put it into your character's immediate goal. As she strives to analyze a nightmare to her brother, include actions that hint at your overall goal for her story. Write her behavior or actions attached to the behavior. In the example above, Salinger’s goal for Franny was for her to ultimately have a nervous breakdown to reflect collegiate society’s pressures on a delicate mind. Close study reveals he kept that goal in his own mind while writing every scene.
  2. Find the lint. I have a big sign above my monitor that demands, “Is there lint?” Can my reader see lint on my character’s jacket if he’s a slob and that slobbiness gets him in trouble? If there’s no lint, maybe this isn’t a key scene. Is your character moving towards her desires in this scene or is she being pushed farther away from them? If the scene doesn’t connect to either of those things, cut and paste it into another document named cut from “…” (Replace “…” with the name of your manuscript, or your favorite nickname for it. “Novel from hell” might work.) Keep that document close in case you ultimately figure out why you wrote one of the scenes you cut and how it might move your character towards her goal. 
  3. Go to the Grand Canyon, or Vegas, or for a walk. Leave your manuscript for a while. You know the current scene moves your character into further danger but you also know you need to add more to the scene, more description of behavior, more interaction, and more emotion. None of this is easy. If it has been in the past, count your lucky stars. Calm down, take a break, and allow some past experiences to creep into your psyche, to give your subconscious a chance to work out the puzzle before you get back to work.

Recently, I had to write about sex in the garden for Greenwoman magazine and my husband had been gone for four months. The early drafts of this article had no sex in them because my current life circumstances were directly impacting my writing. I had to mine the past and think back to a time I’d had sex. What made it good, I’d asked myself? What made it GREAT? This line of thinking brought back a memory of a lover breathing on my ear at a café in Germany. That detail changed the whole article.

            When your “telling” takes over a scene or an entire article or manuscript, don’t strangle your reader when she tells you to “flesh it out” or “go deeper.” Simply follow exercises outlined above and see if they help you understand what’s missing, and what your reader wants to see during her next reading of your wonderfully “fleshed out” manuscript. Then get to work. After you've thrown a few darts.


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