Thursday, November 1, 2012

ABC's of Writing - (L)ayering Adds Depth

When I think of layering in stories, I always think the best analogy is cooking. If you think of those complex meals, you know exactly what I mean. A single dish provides notes of different flavors and textures. During the first bite, you get one flavor and then, as you chew, it moves to greater and greater notes of flavor. In cooking, this is simply done by working with great herbs, spices. With writing, we do this through elements such as dialogue, narration, action, senses and so forth. And, like in cooking, it is a matter of finding the right balance and the right combinations.

As an agent, I find that I frequently am passing on projects because the stories lack any depth. When I do tell authors this, I frequently hear back that they have other scenes that they could add to the story to get that depth. Unfortunately, for these authors, they are missing the point. There is a confusion that depth and layering means just doing more. If we return to the cooking analogy, this would be saying the plate of pasta lacked depth so we should just have 3 or for more plates of pasta to take care of this. The result is we end up throwing out the extra plates of wasted food because we didn't get what we wanted. For your readers, they simply quit reading and throw the book out.
Now please understand that, like all things in writing, there isn't one right approach to layering your stories. Your story might need more introspection on one scene and then more interactive dialogue on a later scene. You might find that describing that amazingly hot sex scene requires using all of the senses to get the feeling right. It all depends on the situation so please, don't go looking for the single right method. I return again to cooking on this one. When I cook, I do so by paying attention to my senses. How does it look? What does it sound like? How does it taste? Just simply saying the food cooks for 12 minutes isn't always going to get the right result.

While you are writing your scenes, try to image your reader actually being in the room with the characters. Think of all the thoughts running through their heads as they watch and listen to what is going on in the story. Think about what they might be sensing, both with their natural five senses as well as on an emotional and mental level. In essence, you have to be a criticial thinker and not simply a piece of furniture in the room.

As you add those layers, also think of what that piece is doing for the story. If it serves no purpose, then simply leave it out of the scene. If your characters are sitting at a dinner table, knowing the ingredients in the pasta might not be necessary. Yet, I do have to tell you, I am amazed at the number of stories I read where the author has described in detail the "savory pasta with hints of basil, oregano and garlic passing her lips." This is one of those "TMI" situations (for you txtrs out there).

Remember that layering is simply adding that depth to your characters and scenes to enrich the story. Layering IS NOT adding more scenes and more words.



  1. Oh, Scott. I am a very bad cook. I just add Sweet Baby Ray's and call it good. So the cooking analogy doesn't work for me!

    What I'd like to see someday are some concrete examples of layering, if that's possible. Some stories you feel are exceptionally well-layered and why? Maybe some "scenes in the works" that you have helped out with?

    For a kitchen impaired writer, that would be the icing on the cake, lol ;)

    (And thanks again for this awesome series!)

  2. If I'm understanding this correctly, it's sort of similar to perfume? When you spritz a little paper it smells sort of flat, but when you spritz your wrist the scent evolves with your personal chemistry and always smells so much better.