Thursday, April 01, 2021

5 Ways to Layer Depth into Your Story

By Jodi Turchin, @jlturchin

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Just because you write all the dialogue first doesn't mean you can't craft a layered story. Jodi Turchin shares tips on adding the depth after your first draft is done. 

Jodi Turchin is a Young Adult novelist represented by Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary. She’s also a photographer, a high school English teacher, an adjunct college professor, and a former actress and director.

Website | Twitter

Take it away Jodi…

When I was in middle school, I was writing a story in my journal, a document my Language Arts teacher would look at weekly. I can still remember reading her red-inked constructive criticism in the margin – “I hear a lot, but I don’t see very much.” At the time, and to a lesser degree, still, I tend to write my first drafts heavy in dialogue. (Maybe I should have been a playwright instead of a novelist!)

So as I grew as a writer, in order to get a novel worthy of a reader, I had to learn how to take that first draft that was very dialogue heavy and figure out how to bring more depth to it. And with that, I learned how to layer in elements to bring that necessary depth to the manuscript. I’m going to share five ways to do that with you today.

1. Paint the scene for the reader.

If you’re a dialogue heavy writer, you may not have set the stage, so your reader might not know where your scene takes place. Layer in some narrative that shows WHERE you are. Without going too deeply into decorating the scene – you don’t want to take your reader out of your story – give the reader a few sentences that describe the setting.

Where does the scene take place?
  • In a park?
  • A restaurant? 
  • Someone’s house? 
  • School? 
Place the reader with the character so they’re not just in a great white room in the reader’s mind.

(Here's more with The Difference Between Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

2. Use sensory details from your main character’s point of view. 

As a high school English teacher, I see a lot of young writers unaware of this method of layering depth into a story. In your scene, where it’s germane, add in some of the sensory experiences from the perspective of that main character. 
  • What do they see? 
  • What can they hear? 
  • What do they smell? 
  • What can they taste? 
  • What can they touch? 
Want to show that your main character is easily distracted? Show a scene where in the middle of a conversation with someone else, she suddenly becomes aware of a bird chirping outside her window. Or his nose crinkles up when the scent of burning food emanates from the kitchen. What might pull that easily distracted character out of the conversation? This not only deepens your scene, but it also gives information about your character without an info dump.

Many industry professionals will tell you to stick with he said/she said for dialogue tagging, yet some new writers bend over backwards to try to use all the fancy verbs they can. Instead of trying to come up with things like he cursed, she chortled, he shouted, she whispered or using adverbs like she said calmly, he screamed loudly, take out those tags altogether. 

Instead, you can tell a reader who is speaking and how they are speaking it by using body language and physical tells. Imagine a character who is nervous about a conversation. Instead of “she said nervously,” you can use something like, “she fidgeted with the empty coffee mug in front of her.” That shows an action – what your character is doing – and being fidgety can absolutely convey nervousness.

(Here's more with Hey, Who Said That? Polishing Our Dialogue Tags)

4. Flashbacks can bring in backstory. 

Sometimes there are things a reader should know about why characters do what they do. Selective use of flashbacks can do that without creating an info dump. For example, I have a manuscript in which my main character’s mother passes away, and she must go live with the father who never knew about her. There are a couple of flashbacks within the story that show her interactions with her mother. 

There’s also a scene in which the MC discovers who her father might be, when she finds a hidden box in her mother’s things with keepsakes of the relationship between her parents. Mom didn’t talk about the character’s father, so finding the box (when she was younger) gave the MC a hint that when the strange man shows up at her mother’s funeral, he was probably her father. Flashbacks, strategically used, can provide an additional layer to the reader’s experience as well as to the development of your characters.

(Here's more with Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks)

5. Body language can give your character depth. 

Again, if you’re a dialogue heavy writer, you may find yourself victim to having “talking heads” telling your story. Just like with the action tags mentioned before, showing what your characters are physically doing can add a necessary layer within a scene. Think about what your character might be doing
  • Are they shifting in their seat? 
  • Chewing on a wad of bubble gum? 
  • Dribbling a basketball? 
  • Twirling a drumstick? 
  • Switching weight from foot to foot? 
  • Leaning back in a chair and crossing their arms over their chest? 
Think about what these physical actions can tell a reader about your character. Layer some of that body language into your scenes to build more depth.

(Here's more with Want Better Characters? Get Rid of the Dialogue)

Dialogue is always an important part of a story, and it’s totally okay if your writing starts there. You can use these tips in your first revision phase to start developing a deeper, more enriched story that your readers will love!


  1. I love these hints. I have a tendency to be dialogue heavy if I don't slid over into exposition. I love this site and is my go to website for help. Thank you for all your time and effort to help aspiring writers.

  2. Some excellent hints her. Thank you.