Therese here. Today’s guest is A. Victoria Mixon, a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years’ experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the coauthor of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators and author of The
Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. She is also blog mama at her own site, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, which was named–along with Writer Unboxed–as one of the top ten blogs for writers by Write to Done. We’re thrilled she’s here with us today to discuss layering in fiction. Enjoy!
3 Layers of ‘Layering’ in Fiction
Layering—what is it? How do you do it? And who really needs it?
One of the most complex and conceptually-difficult of the fiction writer’s tools, layering is also one of the most essential. And once you’ve learned it you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
Like all other aspects of fiction, layering is holographic: it works on the macro as well as the micro level. In fact, layering goes all the way down to the granularity of your telling details.
- Novel-level layeringThe simplest way to think of a novel is in terms of two tracks running almost-but-not-quite parallel to each other. Your main plotline is riding down one track. Your secondary plotline is riding down the other. Your Hook is the point at which first one and then the other pulls out of the station, and the end of Act I is the point at which both heave simultaneously into view. (That’s about 1/4-to-1/3 of the way through your novel.)
The conflicts you throw at your characters throughout the novel are the points at which those tracks almost collide, and the last one, at the end of Act II (about 2/3-to-3/4 of the way), is pretty doggone bad—the plotlines come so close they strike sparks, knocking each other wildly into different directions.
That’s your Faux Resolution, when you psyche your reader into thinking the tracks aren’t going to collide after all. Whew! What a relief! Then your Climax occurs when they over-correct and veer straight back into each others’ paths.
So the simplest way to layer these two tracks is to alternate chapters. Chapter One = Track One. Chapter Two = Track Two. Chapter Three = Backstory for Track One. Chapter Four = Backstory for Track Two. Chapter Five = Whoa! Track One just found out about Track Two!
And so it goes, back and forth, sharing a chapter whenever there’s a near-miss, until the Climax, where they SMASH right into each other. You can add a chapter or two for the epiphany after the Climax, but you don’t have to. That epiphany is most powerful when it’s most succinct.
You can also add a third or even fourth track, but be aware you might do yourself bodily injury.
- Scene-level layering
The problem with scenes is that they, like novels, need to go more than one place at once. Every single scene must forward the story’s progress down one or more track toward the inevitable collision. And
every single scene must also pull the reader further in. A tall order!
The way to layer scenes is through a wide spectrum of writerly skills. Are you good with humor? Identify scenes to layer with a character’s humor. Are you good with imagery? Identify scenes for subtle interaction
dependent upon imagery. Are you good with high-adrenalin action? dialog heavy with subtext? inexplicable mystery? poignant honesty?
Identify the scenes best for each of your skills and determine the order in which you’ll yank the reader first one way—hilarious!—then another—oh. . .heart-break!—and yet another—what are they talking about? who did what to whom? what does she mean, “It wasn’t like that at all”?
Don’t use the same skills for consecutive scenes. That numbs the reader and dilutes the impact. Instead, vary them, establish invisible patterns, keep the reader’s experience constantly fresh and multifaceted.
And when you come to the climactic scene of each Act, where your story needs to wrench in a completely unexpected direction, start the scene on one Track, insert the other Track, and end on the first Track again.
Pile up the layers until the reader simply lets go their grip on reality and tumbles, like Alice, down the rabbit-hole of your imagination.
- Detail-level layering
Finally, there is layering on the level of telling details. This is descriptive work, and now more than ever it’s essential to do it right.
There was a time when you could lay it on pretty thick. Describe the clothes, describe the hairstyles, describe the face and hands and feet and furniture and street scenes and pets and different types of haberdashery. Paint us a picture! Oh, boy! Draw us a map!
But it was never really a good idea, and now we’re in the Age of the Infinite Time-Suck it simply doesn’t wash. Say what you’ve got to say, say it quick, and get the heck out of the way.
This—more than anything going on in fiction today—is the key to a new generation of extraordinary literature. Because this forces us to choose only those perfect, significant, telling details that snap scenes
into focus and then rely upon their juxtapositions to reveal the hidden meanings.
It also makes your work two distinct steps on the micro level:
- Record every real, concrete, believable detail in each of your scenes (mis-laced brown shoelaces, extra-wide tortoiseshell bifocals, veined beetle-shaped stains on the waiter’s apron, a scrap of an old book cover under the desk clock, liver spots on the backs of hands).
- Then cross out all of them, except the tiny handful that carry the greatest meaning for your characters at this moment, in this context. These you drop into the scene to first catch the reader’s attention at the beginning and then leave them with an important insight at the end. And near one or the other you drop in just. . .one. . .more. . .telling detail.
That’s the asymmetry that creates unconscious associations between your telling details in the reader’s mind, deepening and revealing hidden meanings—the magic of juxtaposition.
And is it the work of crafting great fiction? Oh, yes. It certainly is.
Thanks for a great post, Victora! Readers, you can learn more about Victoria through her blog, her Editing Services, and via Twitter. And, psst, you can get a preview of her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction, HERE via a PDF. Write on!