How to Use Layers to Enhance Your Plot
I’m happy to introduce our guest today, C.S. Lakin, who is the author of twelve novels (yes, TWELVE!), including the seven-book fantasy series, The Gates of Heaven. Ms. Lakin is a professional editor and loves to help writers improve at their craft. Make sure to swing by her websites, cslakin.com and livewritethrive.com. You can also follow her on Twitter.
Writers of fiction focus heavily on plot, and rightly they should. A good story will have one. A great story will have many plot layers. You could call them subplots, but I find it helps to think of them as layers because of the way they work in your story.
Your Life As Plot
One way that may help you in developing and deepening your plot layers is to think about your own life. You have some big goals—long-term, long-range goals. Maybe it’s to finish college and get that degree. Maybe it’s to start a family and create your dream life with your spouse. In a novel, that would be your main plot, the visible goal your protagonist is trying to reach.
But as that “plot” plays out in your life, other things encroach on or dovetail from that goal. You may be dealing with some personal issue—like a recurring health problem or a former boyfriend who keeps showing up against your wishes.
You may also be dealing with trivial things like trying to decide what color to paint your bedroom, and the paint store guy, who’s completely incompetent, can’t get the color right.
Flavors of Your Story
Life is made up of layers. I picture them by their size and scope. You have the big, fat layer of the main plot on top, then different layers underneath of different thicknesses and flavors. All this creates a very rich cake. If life were just one sole “plot” (“I gotta get that college degree”), it would be boring. And so are novels and short fiction that only have one plot layer.
Life is complex. It’s messy. We’re told to complicate our characters’ lives. Well, this is the best way to do it—by introducing many layers of plot, and not just for your protagonist but for your secondary characters as well.
If you can create three layers at least, think of them as plots A, B, and C. You know your A plot—it’s the main one driving your story. But now you need B and C.
You want B to be an important layer that will help the main plot along—either something that enhances Plot A or runs headlong into conflict with it.
Plot C will be thinner and more trivial, and may even add that comic relief in your tension (picture your character trying to get the paint guy with myopia to see the obvious difference between the two unmatching paint swatches). Believe it or not, Plot C can serve the purpose of revealing a lot of emotion and character (ever thrown a hissy fit at a store when you’re having a bad day?).
Plot Layers Enhance Your Novel’s Theme
In a novel I wrote that needed a big revision, I decided to make a secondary character my protagonist. Fran is a bit sketchy in the original story; you know a little about her life, personality, and tastes. She’s a homicide detective investigating the hit-and-run, which frames my story.
But now I needed to bring her to the forefront. Not only did I deepen her involvement with the main plot and increase the number of her scenes, I added an ongoing, growing tension (Plot B) with her teenage son that exposed issues of trust and believability—elements that are key themes of my main plot. Fran doesn’t really believe in her perp’s claims of innocence, nor does she believe her son’s when he insists he didn’t hack the school’s computer.
In the midst of all this, she hates the LA heat, has terrible asthma, so my Plot C is the aggravating element of her air conditioner at home always going on the fritz—which compounds and exacerbates the tension and “heat” in her house and family life.
Brainstorm a Plot B and a Plot C layer of varying importance that can work together to enrich and enhance your story.
Brainstorm for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.
And if you practice, be sure to comment on a few other practices, too!