Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Do you love a good subplot? I confess, I love a story with complex subplots and a big cast. I get a little thrill every time two characters meet for the first time. And I love getting to see how people and places are interconnected in ways the characters don’t realize. It’s a god-like perspective we humans aren’t granted in our earthly existence.
Strong subplots are a hallmark of sophisticated writing. It takes serious skill to keep all the details straight, get the timing right, and weave all the disparate elements of the plot together into a cohesive whole.
The trick is, robust subplots don’t happen by accident. Have you ever read a story where there was just way too much going on and you couldn’t keep all the storylines straight? Or maybe a subplot just dropped off somewhere along the way and you noticed a glaring plot hole?
These are often symptoms of a plot that’s run away from the author. So, what can writers do to bring greater skill and intention to crafting plot structure?
A layered approach is just one answer, but it’s a concept that I find particularly helpful. Let’s take a look at how layering works and the tools it can offer you in your writing.
What is a layered approach to plot?
The simplest answer is that taking a layered approach to structuring a book means applying a hierarchy to the different elements of your plot. Different elements become layers that stack to create a whole, but some layers are more important than others, because they’re supporting more weight.
Applying a hierarchy to your plot elements can help you layer your narrative.Click To Tweet
You know the old ‘plotter versus pantser’ distinction? If you’re not a plotter, you may be feeling some resistance to all this talk of designing your plot in layers. That’s okay. I’m not secretly trying to change your approach.
Layering can be done at the planning stage, but it can also be done as you edit. The idea isn’t to spend every moment obsessing, but rather to step back for a moment, get a bird’s-eye view of your story, and take stock of how the pieces are fitting together. Do that and you’ll bring more intention to your work.
Janice Hardy of Fiction University describes layering as constructing a house. In ‘Plotting With Layers: 4 Steps to a Stronger Plot’, she suggests considering the following as different layers of your house’s construction:
- The core conflict is the foundation,
- Subplots frame in the space, adding complications,
- Themes serve as walls, helping you decide which subplots work best for the story,
- Character arcs serve as decoration, adding color and texture.
Let’s look at each of these in greater detail, see how they work independently, and learn how to develop them in the context of a layered approach.
When you’re constructing plot, core conflict is the first and most vital layer. It carries the most weight and defines what it’s possible to build on top. It sets the trajectory of the plot. It shapes the character arcs. It drives narrative action.A layered approach to plot begins with the core conflict of a story.Click To Tweet
You can see why the core conflict is the foundation of a layered approach to plot: it determines so many factors within the story, so it’s the logical starting point.
Examine your core conflict. Is it:
- Complex enough to carry the story from start to finish?
- Robust enough to create multiple obstacles to overcome?
- Believable and well-matched to your characters?
- So complicated that not all aspects can be resolved within the scope of the story?
Crafting the right core conflict is tricky. It needs enough challenges to carry the story and character arcs all the way to the end, but not so many that the plot becomes convoluted.
Once you feel confident in your core conflict and have established its foundational role in the story, you can move on to the subplots.
Subplots are the next most important layer, and they can accomplish many things at once. They can help work out major story themes, accomplish significant worldbuilding, develop character arcs, and embody central story motifs. In a layered approach to plot, subplots can work out some of the complications of the main conflict, explore minor conflicts, and introduce secondary characters.
Subplots are most powerful when they intentionally complement other story elements like the central conflict, character arcs, or themes. The idea with layering isn’t that everything is disconnected, but rather that each layer is laid in consideration of the others. Each layer defines the possibilities of less vital plot elements, but it should also take advantage of what lower layers made possible.If your story is layered, each plot element utilizes the potential of the element that came before.Click To Tweet
Previous layers of plot are about the events of your story. They define what can happen, but it’s the next layer, your themes, that facilitates the meaning behind those events.
As you examine your unfolding storylines, can you see themes at work? Are they guiding readers from scene to scene? Do they help propel your plot and character arcs forward?
Only some themes will work with the plots you’ve chosen to depict, but if you derive your themes from what you now know will happen, they’ll remain close to the heart of your story, and they’ll become a more effective tool.
The final layer, character arcs draw on the plot, subplots, and themes for their impact. If your layering has been conscious, each character’s voice, dialogue, personality, and internal landscape will belong in your story. And each character’s progression will work in concert with the core conflict and subplots to bring the story to climax and resolution.
Plots and subplots tell you what your characters must go through, and your themes tell you what it’s meaningful for your characters to draw from those experiences. If you’ve really attended to your layering, character arcs may even present themselves to you fully formed. Don’t be fooled; this only happened because you thought so much about the context in which they’ll exist.
Layer your plot, subplots, and theme, and your character arcs may appear fully formed.Click To Tweet
Layering is caring
Creating complex, entertaining, and powerful plots is no easy task. There are so many moving parts that it can be hard to keep everything working towards the same goal.
Layering offers writers a way to monitor the construction of their core conflict, subplots, themes, and character arcs. I love that this technique provides insight at both the individual level of each layer as well as the global level of how all these layers work together to build the literary tower.
How have you employed a layered approach to plot in your stories? What aspects of plot construction do you struggle with? You can also check out Adding A ‘B Plot’ Is The Simple Way To Improve Your Story and Can A Framing Device Improve Your Writing?