Authorguy's Blog

Story layering

Posted on: December 16, 2012


A lot of authors feel daunted by the first blank page of a new story, putting down that first sentence that will anchor the first paragraph that anchors the first chapter. I know that right now I have one last chapter to write for the current episode of my fanfic series nine2five, and I am feeling a bit daunted because I haven’t got a strong idea where to begin it.

This is where story layering comes in. Basically, it means start with one element of your story, it doesn’t matter which one. It could be your strongest story element (mine is dialog) or a hook from the previous story/chapter, anything that you feel most comfortable with, to just write something down. You can’t edit what ain’t there.

In my case I often start with a great swatch of dialog, two characters having a great time advancing the plot with witty banter and repartee. (The below examples are from St. Martin’s Moon.)

“How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

“You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past. You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.”

“That’s not the job.”

“Oh, it’s a perk?”.

“It’s a hazard! Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that.”

Then, three pages later, I’ll look back at what I just wrote an see that it has no action at all, not even dialog tags. This is probably where I learned my dislike of dialog tags. Rather than write ‘he said’ all the time, I just fill in the missing action around the dialog, making sure the reader knows who is doing the talking by also showing what he is doing. The only time I’d ever use a dialog tag is when I couldn’t use the action do it.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered.

So that’s my second layer. A third layer might be the reactive text, showing what character A is thinking or feeling about what character B has just said or done. Or it could be character A thinking about what he himself is doing. My least favorite layer is the part where I have to put something down as the author that no character is saying/thinking/doing.

How would you have felt about a ‘small vacation’, or a ‘leave of absence’?”

Like this one. Marquand shook his head mutely. The thought of such a suggestion, today, such a… trivialization of what had…he couldn’t speak through the anger. Impossible to imagine what his reaction would have been then. They wouldn’t be trying to get him back now, for sure.

The colonel’s face was stone, intent stone, but stone. “You would have spent the whole time laying about, nothing to do, dreading the day you had to come back, obsessing about the very thing you were supposed to be getting over, through, and past,” he declared flatly. “You resign, the future is open-ended. You need a new job, something to pay the bills, like but unlike the job you’re best suited for.”

“Watching a friend turn into ice crystals.” Marquand could barely be heard by anyone but the cooling tea in his hands.

“That’s not the job,” said Pierce quickly, his voice full of the bitterness lacking in the other man’s.

“Oh, it’s a perk?” Ah, there’s the passion.

“It’s a hazard!” Pierce managed, just barely, to keep from shouting. “Bing-Bang knew it and accepted it. So did you, once. Do you think she’d want to see you like this?”

“Better than me seeing her like that,” Marquand countered. His voice sank into a mutter. “We were going to ask to be partnered next rotation.”

Story layering is clearly a form of story editing, and for those who prefer to write fist and edit later may not be of much help. My own writing style is to start from the beginning, and then every so often reread what I just wrote to come up with ideas for what I should write next. During this reread I will often have thoughts about text that should be in there that I forgot to include the first time, quite often flavoring pieces that don’t have much impact on the plot but enhance the presentation of the character. My personal favorite one of these occurred to me when writing St. Martin’s Moon. As my hero was being chased by one werewolf into the arms of another, the two monsters start threatening each other, rather than pay attention to him. I was on my fourth round of edits when I reread this scene and the thought popped into my head:

They weren’t social creatures. Nice to know, but it sucked to be the one to find out.

Which not only suited the character perfectly, it was an important plot point later on. The best part about this is that it’s often cyclic, as new layers inspire you to add yet more layers. It’s important to not get so lost enhancing what you’ve already got that you lose track of where you want to go. The important layers will feed into each other and propel the story. Others are just lily-painting and should be left for the end.

Unless they’re really, really good.

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