|photo by firexbrat via Flickr|
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?
- 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?
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.