Adding Complexity to your Scenes

Humans like complexity; puzzles, questions, layers. They all fascinate us. My guess it’s because there are so many complex systems in nature that our brain needs to wrap itself around. Ecosystems, weather systems, the tax system… But the one that would have had the most influence on our evolution is social systems. Our social systems and relationships are predetermined but constantly changing, strongly connected but disjointed, adaptive but counter-intuitive (like, why do I bother asking if my sons are hungry?). The brain is drawn to complexity (think about a piece of art that caught your attention — did it have layers?), is curious about complexity (did you spend time wondering and pondering?) and attends to complexity (how long did you stand there, wondering and pondering?).

It’s why complexity in stories also attracts us, and I’m going to hypothesise that a significant proportion (if not all) of best-selling novels capture complexity in their pages. As I think of the novels that I loved, the ones that stayed with me, they all had complications, intricacies and layers. They were complex.

And I don’t just mean a complex plot. Complexity isn’t all about whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming. It’s more than that, and to explain it, I’m going to use permaculture. For any non-horticulturalists out there, permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. How does it relate to writing? Well, you’re either about to learn a valuable strategy for writing awesome scenes, or you’re about to wonder about the convoluted mechanics of my brain…

One of the principles of permaculture is that any element in your garden needs to perform more than one function. Chickens? Yes, they produce eggs. But they’re also scrap munchers, manure makers and little walking tractors. Feed them your left over lunch, then use them to turn over old garden beds, and fertilise them in the process. The eggs are almost a bonus! A grape vine growing on a trellis? At the right angle, it can provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for a bunch of veggies, it can provide a nice little micro-climate for the strawberry bed beneath, oh, and its fruit and leaves are edible.

A good scene will do the same. It works on more than one level. Through careful consideration and design (just like a permaculturalist), you add more value for your reader, more experiences and emotions and information for your reader to devour. You’d already have an idea of what the function of your scene is — usually moving the plot forward. Here are some ‘layers’ you can add to a scene to add complexity:

Deepen characterisation

Let your readers learn something about your character they didn’t know. Do they need a ‘save the cat moment’ (a term coined by Blake Snyder where your character does something—e.g. like saving a cat, to make them more likeable), let their quirks shine through, slip in a little of their backstory or their wound or their strengths.

Explore theme

Use a little symbolism or metaphorical word play to explore the deeper question, worldview, philosophy, message, moral, or lesson your book is probing.  You could slip it into dialogue, the setting or your secondary characters.

Explore a secondary character

Your secondary characters are a great way to explore theme, but they can also be a juxtaposition or complement to your main character (and/or antagonist). Use them to elicit emotion in your reader — whether it’s empathy for them or for your hero. Expand the focus of your scene to include interesting and valuable information about them too.


I do love some nice foreshadowing, both as a writer and as a reader. Foreshadowing elicits intrigue, which in cognitive terms, means curiosity. Whilst entrancing and educating your readers about what’s happening right now, you can give them a taste of what might be coming…

Deepen setting

Your setting is a character in itself. It can help your hero, or be a major roadblock (either literally or metaphorically). It can set the mood, provide context (e.g. the culture or the historical period) and denotes the passage of time. Weave it into your scene like a best-selling,  author.

Show off your writing talent

Sprinkle a little purple prose or clever metaphors. Implement those literary devices or challenge the ‘rules’ of writing. As you take your reader on this ride, do it in style. Most importantly, do it your way.

So, if you have a scene that you think might be a little ‘flat’, or if you’re looking to jazz one up so it has more impact, I recommend engaging your green thumb and employing this handy little permaculture principle: every scene must perform more than one function.

What about you? Can you think of any other ways to add complexity to a scene? Does your current scene serve more than one function? I love hearing from you, connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,


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  1. Many thanks for this, Tamar!

    ‘Adding complexity’ could also be called ‘complicating the issue’ though it sounds less desireable that way! Given my WIP is essentially what used to be classified as an adventure story, complexity is less useful than in more self-consciously ‘literary’ novels. I see my trilogy as more elaborate than complex, since it is mostly a huge journey, linear but massively eventful. And I avoided characterization for the sake of itself.

    I’ve been much influenced by C. S. Lewis, whose famous 1960 article ”The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard” actually warned against the application of “literary” characterization to adventure stories, though Lewis himself did create memorable characters in his Narnia series. Of course, a character can be memorable and larger-than-life without being particular deep or complex in psychological terms. They can be archetypal and even stereotypical, if they have enough bravado. Metaphorically, we may speak of such characters as high and wide rather than deep.

    I also deliberately avoided themes and messages, but a few seeped in, particularly towards the end, and I decided to go with them. They included politics and religion. In particular, my ‘good guys’ are led by a billionaire buffoon who gets elected to high public office, a conceit I thought VERY unlikely until last year!

    Secondary characters are also less important in my WIP since it is a first person narrative by a teenage boy. He is observant and fairly astute about many things, but a bit naive about people.

    I certainly use foreshadowing, often added retrospectively as my WIP developed.

    Settings are HUGE with me. Literally and figuratively! Much of my WIP is set on an ocean liner which is effectively a character in its own right. Trains, cities, lost and found, skyscrapers, and airships all figure in the story and reflect the ambitions of their builders. Also storms and jungles.

    I don’t consciously worry whether a scene is serving more than one function, only whether it entertains, but my subconscious must be at work, since there is little I think I could remove without lessening the story.

    Style-wise, I want my writing to be always engaging, but also paradoxically invisible, pleasing the reader without distracting him/her. I use much humor, particularly wisecracks which my characters use even more in serious situations!

    Overall, I think the sort of ‘High Concept’ adventure story I write must have complexity and layers, but must also spark the reader’s imagination and inner eye and be the script for the ‘movie’ the reader directs and projects in his/her mind, based on the story. I allow space for the reader’s creativity and recognise that the reader may in fact improve on my story with their inner ‘movie’!

    Again referring to C. S. Lewis, when Andrew Adamson reread ‘THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE’ before writing and directing the 2005 movie, he was surprised that the final battle was smaller in scale than he remembered as a kid. Though he retained the greatest of admiration for the book, he nonetheless scaled up the battle in the movie to match what he had imagined as a child. We writers should be honored when readers take our stories and run with them like that. We’re not writing Holy Scriptures!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John, it’s great to see how you’ve applied each of the components to your current manuscript! Very thoughtful, and I love that, with thought and consideration, you take the parts that work, and leave the rest. Love the concept of ‘high and wide’ rather than ‘deep’ characters 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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