I have a mantra I keep in my head as I write: Make every word, every sentence, and every scene do more than one thing. I'll write an article on this someday, but essentially I try to make a sentence tell the reader something about the characters involved, advance the plot, set the mood, and anything else I can cram into it. It's rare that this cramming goes overboard - it's much more likely that my sentence will be too light.
In writing a recent story, I got stuck in a scene and had to stop and backtrack. I realized I was force-feeding the reader story elements that were needed to advance the plot, and the force-feeding was obvious because nothing else was going on in that passage. The characters were discussing philosophy, which was necessary for the reader to understand in order for the climax to work, but the sentences involved weren't doing anything else.
It was obvious that I was trying to shove this philosophy at the reader. I sat down to try to rethink how to stick to my mantra of "do more than one thing," when the link between "do more than one thing" and "surprising inevitability" jumped out at me.
"Surprising inevitability" is a concept in fiction that has its roots in the twist ending, but works pretty well when used subtly in nearly any ending. In the twist ending, you are expecting one thing to happen, but then you are surprised by a twist. If the story is good, you then realize that the twist was actually inevitable the whole time, but you weren't looking at the story in the right context.
Humor and fiction both play off this re-contexting notion. Take the Mary Poppins joke: "I met this man with a wooden leg named Smith." "Oh really? What was his other leg named?" The change of context is the only thing that makes that joke work. You don't have to have a surprising-yet-inevitable-in-retrospect ending to a story, but it's a technique that works.
So I discovered, while puzzling out why my scene wasn't working, how I use "do more than one thing" to achieve "surprising inevitability."
I think of it as sleight of hand. A magician keeps you watching his right hand while his left is setting up the trick. In the same way I try to write "foreground text" which is up front and dominates the reader's attention. At the same time I am writing "background text" which is the stuff I want the reader to pick up, but not utilize yet. And I have a third text, which I call "relationship text" that I try to infuse into most sentences.
I think I can only show this by example: I have two people talking. I need the reader to understand certain aspects of philosophy involving memory, but I can't just have them talk about it because it feels forced and obvious. The philosophy needs to be part of the background text that the reader will take in like a wooden horse, and which I can utilize unexpectedly later. But I have to make the reader believe this passage exists for a completely different and legitimate purpose. The best way to do this is... to give the passage another, legitimate, purpose. The tension in the scene is created with the foreground text. One of the people in the scene will be going to war, but neither knows who it will be yet. The topic of war atrocities comes up, and how people in battle deal with the horrors of war by blocking it out of their minds. This raises the topic of memory and how it functions in people as a defense mechanism. The more they talk about the way war can destroy your mind, the more tense they become, since they still don't know who will have to go. While the reader is (hopefully) absorbed in the rising tension, he or she is also taking in those philosophical points about memory.
The result was that I had a scene that worked—two people getting tense and trying to understand their situation—completely on the foreground level. In the meantime, the philosophy they were discussing and its implications were laid down in the reader's mind in the background.
The relationship text is slightly different, but similar. Especially in dialogue, choose your words to illustrate the relationship between characters. You greet your business partner much differently than you greet your lover, so don't use "Hi. How are you?" for either. Show their relationship in their word choice—"You look well today" vs. "Well, don't you look delicious."—their pauses, their gestures, their eye contact, and especially what they don't say. Think about the relationships involved in every sentence you write.
In the end, the foreground text that moves the reader from scene to scene leads the reader to the end of the story, and at that end, the culmination of the background text is revealed and the reader's sense of context shifts.
Again, this is not necessarily a twist ending; it's understanding what you've read in a new light. With luck, the reader will see the story and its topics in a new light he didn't even know he was absorbing. He might see that a woman he thought was struggling against physics was actually struggling against her own morality. Or that a man who seemed to fear imprisonment actually feared the responsibilities of freedom. I enjoy reading this kind of story, and it's the kind I try to write.
You may be thinking that all this is obvious, and it is. My "epiphany" wasn't about the idea itself, but in understanding the machinations of it. I now have a tool I didn't have a few months ago. When I lay out a scene, I do most of this work subconsciously, but I now have a way to check that a scene is going to do what I need it to before I start writing it. I can now easily ask myself, What will the foreground text say? What will the background text say? What will the relationship text say? If I can answer these questions, I write much stronger scenes, characters, and hopefully stronger stories.