Six impossible things

Layering

One of the things that makes writing difficult for a lot of folks is the notion that they have to do everything at once, on the first try. They’re sure their first draft has to look pretty much like an actual story – maybe it needs some tweaking, but everything’s more-or-less there: the plot, the dialog, the action, the setting, the characterization. They kind of know that they can put some of it in during the revision stage, but they don’t really understand what that means, much less how to do it.

I suspect that this is partly a problem left over from pre-word-processing days. When you had to type or handwrite every page, and adding a paragraph of description meant retyping not only the page with the new paragraph, but the entire rest of the chapter (if not right away, then at least when you got to the point of typing up a submission-ready copy), it was a whole lot easier and more practical to get as much down on the first pass as you possibly could, no matter how you’d really prefer to work. I still have vivid memories of the days when “cut and paste” meant actual scissors and glue or Scotch tape, and of the “page” that ended up being three feet long (folded carefully so that it would stack with the rest of the typed ms.) because I really, really didn’t want to take the time to retype all that stuff. And I only did one book that way before I got a word processor.

The thing is, I know quite a few writers whose first drafts are rather…minimalistic. Several of them start with screenplay-like drafts that sum up all the action scenes as “They fight. George wins.” and all the settings as “Hotel bedroom” or “in car, driving” or “hiding in woods; dark.” I didn’t understand how this could possibly work until one of them, about fifteen years back, introduced me to the concept of layering.

Layering is a writing technique that is slow and mechanical, and it will drive you crazy if you don’t have the discipline to keep going back over and over and over your work until everything you want to have in it is in it. Every so often, though, it’s just the thing, even for those of us who don’t normally work this way. And it’s easiest to explain by example.

Basically, you start with one specific thing: dialog works for most folks, but description or setting or action or narrative summary can do just as well. You write that part of the scene, and only that part. When you’re satisfied with it, you go back to the beginning and add a second layer: what people were thinking while they spoke, for instance (if you started with dialog), or what they were saying while they did things (if you started with action). Then you add a third layer, and so on. So the first draft would look something like this:

He:  “What are you doing here?”

She:  “Isn’t it obvious?”

He:  “Not to me.”

Draft two would put in tone of voice and names:

“What are you doing here?” James demanded.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Helen said sarcastically.

“Not to me,” James said.

Draft three put in the characters’ actions while they talked:

     “What are you doing here?” James demanded, glancing around the half-empty warehouse.  He shuddered.

Helen shrugged and looked down.  “Isn’t it obvious?” she said sarcastically.

“Not to me,” James said, refusing to follow her gaze.

Draft four put in more description of the place and the things in it, like so:

    “What are you doing here?” James demanded, glancing around the half-empty warehouse.  A pile of soggy cardboard boxes in one corner had split open, spilling moldy, unidentifiable contents across the filthy floor.  The whole place smelled musty and disused, and he was sure he had heard a rat squeak.  He shuddered.

Helen shrugged and looked down.  The digital timer on the half-finished bomb at her feet clicked over another minute.  “Isn’t it obvious?” she said sarcastically.

“Not to me,” James said, refusing to follow her gaze.

Draft five put in what the POV character was thinking about what was going on:

     “What are you doing here?” James demanded, glancing around the half-empty warehouse.   A pile of soggy cardboard boxes in one corner had split open, spilling moldy, unidentifiable contents across the filthy floor.  The whole place smelled musty and disused, and he was sure he had heard a rat squeak.  He shuddered.   It was, he thought, the last place in the world he would have expected to find his wife’s elegant, high-society friend, but here she was.  And what’s that thing she’s standing by?  It’s not … it can’t be … oh, god.

Helen shrugged and looked down.  The digital timer on the half-finished bomb at her feet clicked over another minute.  “Isn’t it obvious?” she said sarcastically.

“Not to me,” James said, refusing to follow her gaze.  She could, he supposed, have been dismantling the bomb.  She could even, perhaps, be unaware of what it was.  He refused to think about how much trouble he and Carol were in if Helen had actually been … no, he was not going to think about that.

And so on.  Note that there is nothing special about the order in which I layered stuff on to this example.  You could start with the dialog, and layer in the characters’ thoughts first, and then put in their physical actions or the description, and so on.  And one could also break it down even more finely  – physical description 1:  visual; physical description 2: smells; physical description 3: sounds; characters’ direct thoughts; characters’ indirect thoughts; etc.  It depends on how your mind works.

12 Comments
  1. Thanks for explaining this so clearly. The more writing I do, the more I see the benefits of a layering process. My own layering process is somewhat haphazard, but making it more systematic would make sure that you’ve considered everything.

  2. That’s really interesting. I don’t work that way, since I think it would kill me. I tend to patchwork things, write a chunk, stitch it in, and then chip away at it until it’s smoothed out. But sometimes I have a scene that isn’t well developed, and perhaps looking at it with layers in mind might really help me figure out what it needs (rather than blindly writing stuff until something feels like it works).

  3. This was one of the most fundamental insights into my writing – that instead of having written badly, and needing to cut, I had merely written _not enough layers_ and needed to add.

    However, I’ve come full circle in that I’ve slowly moved towards trying to put down more in the first draft, particularly more description, because there’s so much interplay between the worldbuilding and the plot – if I slow down and look around and describe, I very often get unexpected plot ideas. If I just write past that and stick to character interactions, I have to do the same amount of work in the second draft; only then it’s harder because I have dialogue that I love and don’t want to tear apart, and I thought I knew what was happening and…

  4. I can see how this would be very beneficial, yet I can also see how this could drive a writer nuts. It might work for me if I did fewer layers at one time. For instance, draft one would be dialogue and tone and action. Draft two would be description of the setting and internal thoughts. Then I might not go insane. This is pretty much what I do with my writing anyway, as I go back through a chapter and realize I needed more of something in a particular layer.

  5. I used to write first drafts in longhand (part of the reason for this was that my computers were Large and Bulky and had to be connected to the DSL line in the living room wall). I’d get up at five a.m. (I was younger and livelier then) and write at a little folding desk in the kitchen, outside which a small creek was running; the burbling sound was soothing. I’d scribble for a couple of hours, then go off to work, and input what I’d written at a more convenient time.

    Then I would put my printout in the same three-ring binder than had held the binder paper I’d written on, and go over it and emend and annotate and write in whole new sections on the back of the preceding page, each cued to where it went by a Greek letter.

    Those were the days.

  6. Hah, I remember that example!

    I used to handwrite almost everything first time round to avoid the copy-and-paste problem. Some pages would end up covered with handwritten insertions, deletions and changes before I got around to typing it out.

  7. I wrote my first novel longhand and figured that most folk would think I was crazy. (This was 2007-2010.) The feel of my pen in my hand somehow kept my internal critic’s voice at bay. It did take forever to type all 169,000 words into the computer later! So I weaned myself back to the keyboard when I started my novella. That felt pretty comfortable (critical voices at a minimum), so I’m still at the keyboard for my WIP (another novel, but much shorter than the first one).

    Thanks for the layering essay. Right now I definitely need the direct dance between character and setting while I tell (or discern) my story. But I remember another blog post in which you explained that whatever a writer’s favorite method for writing, it would likely fail at some point. I’m grateful to be storing up your wisdom for when that failure point arrives in my own writing life!

  8. This is really interesting. I’ve been chewing myself out a bit for writing `talking head’ stories and then having to go back and add descriptions. Nice to know that’s not really a fault. 🙂 I’ve never broken things down in this many layers -I think that would drive me crazy! But the method is definately worth keeping in mind for problem scenes.

  9. Wow. I’ve never seen it explained so clearly. What a wonderful way to write and do revisions! I’m going to try that the next time I am attempting to put it all down at once and _all_ just isn’t coming.

  10. I think that explains the way my brain works- I can only seem to either write action or description at once- it takes a lot to shift from making up what’s happening to making up what everything looks like.

  11. I hope, Ms. Wrede, that your example was exaggerated for effect. I can not see myself writing something like that and leaving out details like THE BOMB until fourth draft. I could write a few layers at a time.

    It is similar to computer programming and the modularisation issue. Roughly, a module is a self-contained chunk of program code. It is not always obvious what those chunks should be, and other people tend to be totally misguided, ah, have different opinions on the matter.

  12. I’m so glad to find this post! Layering was the only way I know to write (though I’m still very new) and it’s so great to hear someone actually describe it as a viable technique.

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