How to Enhance your Writing by Layering Your Scenes & Plot

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

When this blog posts, I will be JET LAGGED from my return trip to Italy. It will be my first full day back home, after a late flight on Wednesday. I hope to be coherent enough to participate with comments, but forgive me if I sleep in. (I will definitely post pictures of my adventure in a later post.)

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In my last blog post on “Narrative Drive – Do You Have It?” – I focused on creating a page turner novel using Narrative Drive. As important as it may be to write a page turner (no matter what genre), it’s also important to have balance when you’re creating a world for the reader to love. Adding layers of character emotions, clear motives, interesting subplots that reveal morsels for the reader, and enriching the world the author creates can enhance the reader’s experience and give them something memorable.

USING LAYERS TO ENHANCE A SCENE:

This is my primary process of reviewing scenes after I write them. Yes, I look for typos and probably other things my mind is conditioned to look for (ie word repeats, crutch phrases, cliches, adverbs, passive voice, etc.), but below are my broad brush strokes in reviewing for layers.

FIRST EDIT – After I finish with my first pass as a scene, I go back to edit. My initial pass is to delete unnecessary words and tighten the sentence structure. After I get a stripped down version of the scene, I go back to why I wrote the scene in the first place and add on.

QUESTIONS TO ASK – What’s the purpose for the scene? Do I advance the plot by 1 – 3 plot points so that the scene is integral to the plot? Does my character have a journey through the scene from start to finish? How has he or she grown or been changed? Are things revealed that propel the scene forward? Are motives clear for the reader?

EMOTION – Whatever the purpose for the scene (ie to build on fear, or love, or tension or to add a mystery element), I try to add more layers of THAT. Make the fear over the top, for example. Create images to show a deepening love. Darken a feeling of grief. Intensify the action by ratcheting everything up to another level. I tweak things sparingly so I don’t slow the pace with more than I need, but almost every scene can do with a bit more. Use your judgement on how much to add.

GIVE GREATER INSIGHT INTO YOUR CHARACTER – Enhance the voice of your scene by using DEEP POV to show what’s happening inside your character’s head. This could be a display of emotions if your character is prone to swearing or it could be adding a more colorful VOICE of your character as he or she sees the scene unfolding in front of their eyes. Give them an opinion on what they are doing and show who they are to the reader. Review any scene to tweak it for a more colorful character punch.

ACTION – If there is action in the scene, make the character active. Don’t tell what’s happening. Have the character be in the thick of it. Also make sure you write the action in well-placed snippets of movement without overly describing it. That can slow the pace. Sometimes with action, less is more.

SCENE STRUCTURE – Does my scene have structure with a beginning, middle and end? Does my character know more by the end than at the start? is there a journey? Does the scene foreshadow something coming?

USING LAYERS TO STRENGTHEN YOUR PLOT:

In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE, I wrote five full plot/subplots that paralleled the main action. My primary protagonist, Jessie the bounty hunter, was the main driver. It was her story to tell. I had her soon-to-be love interest, Payton, be the uncle of a missing girl and showed what he did to find his sister’s only girl. The 3rd character was the missing girl Nikki. I didn’t want her to be a symbolic McGuffin for people to chase. I wanted to show how dark things got for her as she is abducted into an international human trafficking ring. I also had two other minor subplots involving a woman cop in Chicago, friend of Jessie’s and a mystery woman (Alexa) who brought help to Jessie as things escalated on a global scale. These three women would become my version of Charlie’s Angels on Steroids.

All these plots converged in a big scene in the middle of the book where their separate journeys collided in an action-packed scene with explosions and high-octane battles. The dark moment left them all stunned with the girl still missing and presumed dead. Once they started to work together, they found another way to hunt for the missing girl.

The only way all this would work? I had to make each subplot be integral to the main plot. Each character had different story lines and different motives for their involvement, but they were all chasing either the bad guys or the missing girl. Each added to the escalating tension with the time running out. It was a challenge to write, but I learned a lot and pushed my comfort zone.

MAIN PLOT – When you break down any book, there is a primary or main plot, but there can also be various subplots for the reader to enjoy. Life isn’t just one thing going on. Give the reader insight into the world you have drawn them into. The main plot is the core conflict that drives the plot.

SECONDARY PLOT – A secondary plot (subplot) should work parallel with the main plot to add escalating tension, conflict or mystery. This type of subplot should add complications to your main plot.

TERTIARY PLOT – If there is a third level subplot, this can be something of less substance, yet make it something memorable for the reader – something to give special insight into the character of your protagonist or that may titillate a romance. Think of a 3rd level plot as a CHARACTER ARC that adds color and texture. Although the 3rd level subplot may not be as driving as the main plot or secondary plot, it can sometimes capture the imagination of the reader because it’s fun or romantic, or a mystery.

For a 3rd tier plot, I once had my main character pick out the right puppy for a young woman who was a rape survivor. A therapy dog. A very emotional payoff for that subplot. It gave insight into HIS character and the puppy warmed the hearts of readers. It gave hope that the young woman would survive her ordeal.

WEAVE THEM TOGETHER? – If you are daring, make these 3 levels of plots work together, where the main plot drives the action, the secondary plot can be a plot device to escalate the consequences and shorten the timing of the main plot, and the 3rd plot can reveal the protagonist’s traits as things escalate.

Do they have time to find a puppy while they are saving the world? Do their internal conflicts and weaknesses add tension as the plot shifts (ie suicidal tendencies, aggravated illness, debilitating fears, temperament issues, or romantic involvements)? Test your character by abusing their weaknesses or personal conflicts. How do they deal with it? How does that struggle manifest throughout the main plot development?

Summary – I’ve often thought of layering as it pertains to one scene at a time, but when I researched this topic, I found layering can apply to plots. As I thought of my own writing, on how I devise subplots, I realized layering impacts the overall structure and makes the book more cohesive. Even themes can be enhanced with scenes and subplots that are woven into a story in a subtle way.

DISCUSSION:

Share your thoughts on your current WIP and the levels of plot/subplot you are using. What choices did you make on the structure of your story? (Even if you are a “pantser,” you should have a feel for this.)

 

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

28 thoughts on “How to Enhance your Writing by Layering Your Scenes & Plot

  1. Welcome home! I know what that jet lag can do–I was in the British Isles for 3 weeks.
    What I like best about this post is that you do this in editing passes. To try to pull this all off would scare the pants off this pantser. (Okay, I’m really more of a planster, but that would have spoiled the already lame joke.)
    Good timing, because right now, I needed another bit of tension, and had my protagonist’s admin come to him with a personal problem, which ended up referring to another character. Now, I have to work that character and problem into the story so it’s not just a “hmmm… need some tension” that doesn’t go anywhere else.

  2. The return trip through hell, thanks to American Airlines. A flight that would have me arriving home by 10pm last night, turned into an arrival by 3:30 am. The delay in NYC of 5+ hours was longer than the flight (3.5 hrs) – waiting inside the plane on the tarmac. A maintenance “paperwork” miscommunication with the ground crew devolved into windy weather with flights queued for takeoff.

    By my estimation, I had been up 30 hrs straight – no sleep. I had to rearrange by plans for Thurs. When I get my life back in order (& my dogs home), I’ll post comments. Thanks for your patience.

  3. Jordan, so sorry to hear of your bad trip home. Hope you recover soon.

    This was a super helpful post. I have read about B plots before, but today something clicked, and what you described finally made sense. In my WIP (my first novel), I can say that my secondary plot is doing what it should, but my tertiary plot isn’t helping anything. I have some work to do!

    It’s super impressive that you wove FIVE plots together!

    • I think of these layered subplots as integral. They must contribute to the main plot in some way. I see scenes like in a movie, looking for balance & escalation. Thanks, Priscilla. I’m glad my post helped. That makes me happy.

      I’m getting my dogs back & they’re FREAKING OUT to be home. I’m very happy right now.

  4. American Airlines always uses such creative excuses. That maintenance paperwork one seems to be their current favorite, as we got some version of it on every leg of my last trip.

    Today’s post is on point and just in time. I’m going to take another look at the chapters I’ve written for my latest fiction WIP. I want to see if I’ve subtly woven layers of my subplots into the main action.

  5. Thanks for the teaching moment!

    My WIP at present is a family drama. (Is that a genre?)Three families-nine people- with all their “baggage”-are stranded together in a snowstorm. The storm is both a scene and an antagonist. A bear has a walk-on part.

    One of the underlying subplots is that two of the men are combat veterans of different wars-both still suffering from PTSD at times-which lends itself to some tense moments between them. Another subplot is that all three families have suffered tragic loss. Add in the three children involved, 14, 7, and 5, a bluntly revealed family secret, and the disappearance of the teenage girl, and the drama escalates.

    I’m in first-round revisions with my editor, and I’ve gone back and added subplot layers. It’s quite fun to see my characters take on more substance and become more “gritty and hard-boiled”-more realistic. It seems now like I’ve known them all my life.

    • It sounds like you have a solid foundation for your world building with an interesting cast of characters.

      “Family drama” is a TV description but it also seems to work for a book genre. If the story centers on women & their families, I might call it WOMEN’S FICTION.

      Thanks, Deb. Good luck in your edit process.

  6. That was a great post, super helpful as I am editing a crime novel. Sorry for your terrible flight but thanks for your insights and for sharing them.

  7. Excellent post. My only addition would be to figure out your weaknesses as a writer and make a checklist of those as part of your editing process. That list forces you to pay attention to them so they won’t get lost in the details.

  8. I had to go back and re-read this several times so it’s seared into my brain. Another excellent post, Jordan.

    I’m currently working on a dark romance (my second novel, while the first novel’s editing percolates in my head) and I find that I have 3 subplots: my protagonist who’s hiding, a group of very angry and disgruntled prisoners, and the efficient running of a labour camp with limited resources and a very long supply chain. There are secrets on both sides, a surprise visit, and a few black moments as well.

    I think I have been subconsciously building those layers in this story, and the writing is certainly much better thank the first novel. I’m 69000 words into it, with another 12-15K left to go. Layering the scenes makes it easy to write, and it makes so much sense.

    Hope you had an amazing trip!!

  9. I hope you had a wonderful trip. I know it was a big deal for you. Hopefully you now have the confidence and desire to get out and travel by yourself more.

  10. Sorry about your flight. I’ve been through a few of those messes, but not on an international flight. I know that part about trying to work after Barbara, bless her heart, would pick me up at 3:00 a.m.

    I’ve got a thing going in which an truly-cute Chinese-American young woman is an international assassin. She is the descendant of a another beautiful, legendary assassin which once killed the corrupt and cruel provincial governor during the Qing Dynasty. So trying to write in three periods of history and present times is driving me nutso.

    She is devastated when she discovers, from her Yeye, her Grandpa who is now drifting into dementia, that her grammie, her Nainai, truly a love of her life, was also an assassin. She can’t imagine her Nainai could have done such things–she thought the family’s assassin heritage had passed centuries ago. She herself is an assassin because, she was told, her country needed her skills to take out a horrible man who works hard to plunge nations into his way of political thinking.

    She finds out her Nainai, when a young woman, had been sneaked into China by the OSS (the predecessor agency to the CIA) to eliminate Mao Zedong while he is leading his Revolutionary Army on the Long March. She fails.

    But my protagonist has another problem. Because of world-wide events, she wants to leave the life to take care of her Yeye. But The Shop has warned her: any attempt to do so will fall hard on him. And then they won’t stop until they find her, as well.

    I didn’t even know how to start the research on her ancient ancestor until I ran across a real-life Chinese assassins’ association. From that discovery, I was able to begin going backwards through the centuries until I reached the point in history where I could insert a mythical group of beautiful young women, Wèi bǎng dìng zhī yī, who had joined forces in secret to protect their families and villages. Wèi bǎng dìng zhī yī means “one of the unbound.” That is, these women did not have bound feet–they were from poor families, and they had no chance to be taken into the households of the ruling and wealthy classes except as kitchen maids, gardeners, fisherwomen, or similar working-class slaves or employees. Certainly never as objects of romance. This provided a perfect cover for them to do their protective work.

    Your post has helped me to understand the problems I’ve got to solve. Thank you.

  11. You have a lot going on in your WIP, Jim. Your comments of traversing time periods reminded me of reading HAWKES HARBOR by S E Hinton. She wrote an odd little book that drifted in & out of present & past. When I did research on memories, I realized I could trigger a past memory or recollection by a simple trigger, like a color or a smell. In my debut YA, IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS, I used present day action to trigger my heroine’s past memories. A color reminded her of a flower. A smell flooded her with images from her past. I would suggest finding a consistent trigger that provides continuity for your story. Such memories might come in a similar fashion with your heroine recalling stories told to her by a mother or grandmother to reveal the family’s past. A grandmother could present family history as if she was revealing a mystery that your heroine is still unraveling. I like the link to her family &.their longevity/family roots.

  12. A big Welcome Home hug, Jordan! You sound amazingly coherent for someone who’s been up 30 hours and stuck on the tarmac.

    Eagerly awaiting stories of your travels!

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  15. I hate flying. I’ve done quite a bit, but still dislike it. Not the actual flying part, but the wait-until-we-can-fly part – the unexpected lay overs or delayed take offs. Our trip from the West Coast to our first African safari camp was 72 hours, around 23 hours total flying with 7 1/2 hours of driving. It was 17 hours across the Atlantic from Atlanta to Cape Town, South Africa. I swore the little plane icon they showed on the progress screen was really a hover craft. Add that the southern part of Africa is nine hours ahead of us… Ugh. But I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. 😀

    Thank you for another insightful post. I thought of subplots as different POV characters and their interrelated stories to each other and the MC. Now I can see how to develop that a bit more.

    May your jet lag be short lived!

    • Thanks, Cecilia. I’m glad you liked the post.

      Your long trip sounds torturous. I probably will look into upgrading my airfare to more comfortable accommodations. It could be worth it.

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