From Fiction University: We're aware of the recent commenting issues and are working to resolve them. We apologize for any inconvenience and annoyance this has caused. Hopefully we'll have it fixed soon, and we appreciate your patience while we get this straightened out. ETA: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Friday, February 11

If You Build it, They Will Read: Plotting With Layers

photo by firexbrat via Flickr
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Layering your plot can create more interesting stories, but it's easy to go overboard and end up with a convoluted mess. How many layers are good? How many are too many? And mostly, how do you craft a well-constructed story that builds on itself and keeps readers interested?

Plots Are Like Onions

I've talked about writing in layers before, and plotting in layers is similar. It helps to look at each layer individually and try not to build the whole thing at once.

Layer One: The Foundation

Your core conflict is the foundation of your plot. This is what will hold your plot together and give it the strength to carry the story. A good core conflict will have enough inherent conflict that it won't be an easy thing to solve. There will be steps to resolving this conflict, complications to work around. If your core conflict only has one or two things to do to solve it, then it might not be strong enough to carry your entire novel.

Layer Two: The Frame

Your subplots are the frames of your plot. They branch off in different directions, but are ultimately all connected in some fashion. They flesh out the plot and allow you to highlight aspects of the story. Too many of them and you have a misshapen house, too few, and you have an empty structure. The trick is to get just enough to provide rooms a reader can wander though. A good subplot will add complications to your core conflict, be a step to achieving that core conflict, or cause trouble in your character's internal or personal story arc. Subplots aren't there just to cause random trouble or tell the story of another character because that character is interesting. They're there to help illustrate some point of your core story.
Layer Three: The Walls

Your theme works like walls to contain your plot and subplots and keep them from getting too large. You want the reader to be able to go from room to room and explore, but never forget they're in the same house. A good theme will tie the entire story together and guide you in knowing what subplots help your core conflict.  If your theme is about forbidden love, then your subplots will very likely explore this in some way. Things the protag (or others) can't have, but really want.

Layer Four: The Decorating

Characters arcs are what brings all of those great plots and subplots to life, because every character will resolve an issue differently. How your character grows and the choices they make help determine the type of issues you might throw at them. A good character arc provides smaller challenges along the way to resolving the core conflict that nudge the character in the direction you want them to go. If your protag needs to learn humility, they'll likely encounter situations where their pride gets them into trouble, and it's only when they stop being jerks that they actually succeed.

Putting it All Together

You'll know your protag needs to accomplish X (your core conflict) by the end of the book, but they don't always know that at the start of the book. A possible subplot might be something that starts them on the path to that core conflict. (your inciting event) This could be a throwaway subplot, but take a minute to think about ways in which that event might affect other aspects of the story.
  • Does it introduce a character or problem that could cause a complication later?
  • Could it foreshadow something that might be trouble layer?
  • Might it contain a key piece of the puzzle that isn't figured out until the protag has gathered a lot more pieces?
Next, look at what happens because of the inciting event. There's a good chance your first major subplot will come into play around this time. Your protag will have a goal they need to solve and be trying to solve it. How does that goal and problem connect to your core conflict? Now go a step further and see if there's any way you can also make it affect your protag's character arc.
  • Can you cause an internal conflict associated with this goal?
  • Can this goal force the protag to face something emotionally they need to overcome by the end of the story? 
  • Can this goal cause your protag to rebel, sending them in the opposite direction of where they should be going?
As your protag continues to solve and complicate the story problems, keep looking for ways to connect those problems to either your core conflict or your character's interior conflict and story arc. What makes layers work so well is that every time a protag has to make a choice, the main issues of the novel are represented in some way. Both interior and exterior conflicts must be resolved, but solving one often makes it harder to solve the other.

Your theme can guide you here, because that gives you a general tone for the story. No matter what the scene is, it'll represent that theme. It might be a smaller connection, but you'll be able to pinpoint what about that scene works thematically. In The Shifter, one of my themes was being trapped. How I illustrated "trapped" varied greatly throughout the novel, whether it was emotionally trapped, financially trapped, or literally trapped. But when I planned a scene, I knew that whatever happened, it would work best if it involved someone being trapped in some type of way, even if that was small. 

I did the same thing with my core conflict and even my subplots. How did that scene involve the core conflict or one or more subplots? While I didn't want to have too many direct connections (that would risk it becoming melodramatic and contrived), having things happen and choices made that affected the other subplots and core conflict helped to tie it all together, so that no matter what my protag did, it had a consequence to the overall story. It mattered to both that particular scene, as well as the story as a whole.

How many subplots you add is really up to you, but I've found that fewer subplots explored more deeply works best. My personal favorite is to have a subplot that directly connects to the protag's internal conflict, the core conflict, and the "unknown plan" subplot the antag is doing that gets in there and mucks things up. That gives me more page time to focus on key areas are really play one conflict off the other. Each conflict will have multiple steps to resolving it, so there's always lots of things for your protag to do. 

Layers can add depth to your story and even make it easier to plot, since ideas that don't fit with the other conflicts are easy to toss aside. They also give you several points of connection to keep things unpredictable for your reader. There won't be any clear easy answers to a problem, and that'll keep them guessing.


  1. Oh my sweet heavens, yes. Thank you thank you thank you. I always have these complex, windy plot ideas and I am STILL trying to figure out how to make it all work. Most of the time people tell me it's "too complicated". It makes me unhappy, because I want to listen to feedback, but "complicated twisty plots" seems to be my default setting.

    Sadly, the only remotely useful advice I've ever found on plot layers is in Writing the Breakout Novel. Beyond that, I feel like I am drowning in a sea of certainty. Thanks for the life raft.

    Consequently, do you have dates yet for when you'll be at Fox Books? Did you say you were doing a writer's workshop? *too excited to hope*

  2. Janice, this is amazing. I'm seeing my WIP through fresh eyes after reading this. Thank you!

  3. Great advice!

    I will pay more attention to this in future...


  4. This post comes at the perfect time for me! I'm always amazed that you can teach these complicated concepts with such clarity. This blog has been a lifesaver!
    PS I'm really liking the new layout!

  5. Elizabeth: Oh good! I'm glad it helped. I'm still doing a workshop at FoxTale, and thanks for the reminder to check back and finalized the date. Soon as I have that I'll post it.

    Alina: Most welcome! Hope you see some good things.

    Misha: Good luck!

    Candace: Awesome, I love when that happens. Thanks so much!

  6. I love your analogy. Makes it much easier to remember and therefore apply while writing. I like the concept of internalizing the conflict early on in the subplot.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  7. Oh yeah I had a thought as I was reading this post, since you just completed your trilogy, maybe you can help me out.
    Early on, I realized that my main conflict was going to take more than one book to resolve--it has it's fingers in just about every aspect of the world I created, and it's not going to give up that easily!
    So here's the problem. For the first book, I've got the SERIES plot(the one that will span at least 3 books) and then I have the BOOK 1 plot/conflict that ties into the SERIES plot/conflict, but is also separate. These two plots are competing for center stage, and I'm not sure which one I should really be focusing on.
    Does the SERIES plot take over, with BOOK 1 plot acting as more of a subplot? Or does BOOK 1 plot take over, with SERIES plot standing in the background, always lurking but never jumping into the spotlight?
    I know you're busy, but if you have a second to adress that for me, I would appreciate it SO much.
    I hope what I just wrote made sense!

  8. Raquel: Thanks! I don't know when I first started using the house analogy but it really fits, and has always worked for me.

    Candace: The series plot can be a more overarching plot as long as that isn't the core conflict of the single novel. For example, the series goal for The Healing Wars is Nya ultimately defeating the Duke, freeing her people, and finding her place in the world, but none of those things drive the plot in book one. But the problems Nya uncovers and is forced to solve in book one sets her on the path to solving those larger series goals (does that make sense?)

    So odds are, each of your books will have a book goal that is wrapped up at the end of that book. That book goal is a step toward resolving the series goal. Threads can be left hanging, but they won't be threads that are required to get a satisfying ending on that book. Like if book was was all about stopping the Duke, readers would be ticked off that she didn't do it in the end. But it's more about her saving her sister, and by the end she sees the Duke is a bigger problem and starts heading toward a situation where she says "hey, we have to stop the Duke" and acts to do that.

    Your series plot will probably be more like a minor subplot in the first book, then growing into a major subplot in book two, then probably taking over in book three. It doesn't *have* to be that way of course, but that would be a structure that would work. Until the series plot becomes the core conflict, it'll most likely be a subplot that just ties everything together and causes overall trouble.

    Does that help? This is worth exploring further, actually. :) Putting it on the docker for next week in more detail.

  9. Thanks, that helps a ton! You just helped me realize that I need to strengthen my book goal a little bit, since I've been letting the series goal take over too much. I can't wait to hear more from you on the subject next week!

    One other question: Is it bad if she doesn't get her goal at the end of book one? Her entire goal during the course of the book is to make sure her family is safe/improve their overall situation. The things that happen at the end of this book will actually bring them to more harm. Is that ok? Will the reader be upset if at the end, all her hard work has only made things worse?

  10. Fabulous post! Well outlined and thought out.

  11. Just visited your re-designed blog for the first time and almost fainted with delirious happiness (escpecially when I saw the lovely SITE CONTENTS sidebar.)

  12. You are pure gold, Janice. You've never written a post I couldn't use! Thank you so much! And I adore the new blog layout. A. MAZ. ING :D

  13. Very great post. As soon as life slows down a bit, I'm going to outline my new project and this post definitely helps me think through how it needs to work.

  14. Candace: It depends if that goal is what is driving her all book. If she has a specific thing to resolve to achieve her family's safety, and doesn't get it, and that leaves the reader hanging and feeling like the book just stopped, they might be disappointed. But if she was trying to get something and does resolve it, but the result of that is to make things worse and that sets up book two, then you're probably fine. The line is usually in what defines a "win" for the book and the protag. If they don't get at all anything they were after and there's no sense of satisfaction, the reader will likely be upset. But if they feel like they got the ending they expected (even if that ending isn't a happy one) then they'll be okay with it. They may want more, they might be dying to read on, but they won't feel cheated by the ending.

    Lisa: Thanks!

    Story Weaver: Thanks! That was the whole point :)

    Wen: And thank you :) Makes me happy to hear that.

    Natalie: Awesome ;)

  15. You have a ton of great advice on your posts! On my first story, I was a full on pantser, but the more I write, the more I am in favor of outlining, writing process steps as you've described : )

  16. Bekah: Thanks! I do like to keep things spontaneous, but having some kind of outline to use as a guide really helps keep me focused and on track. I like to know my skeleton plot, but the rest can just happen as I write.

  17. Genius! And just the thing I needed to read. Thanks for this post!

  18. Always happy when a post hits a writer at the right time :)

  19. I know I'm hugely late to this post, but what a wonderful post! It compliments my (more recent) post about plotting in onion rings so perfectly!

  20. Staticsan, no worries, they're always here and I do re-run them from time to time. I like your onion post. I think there's a post in here someone that's titled "X are like Ogres" that plays of the onion theme as well. It's a great simile.