Today we’re hosting editor and author C. S. Lakin on the importance of plotting in layers, and how these layers work together to enhance your character’s struggles and challenges.
Creating plots and subplots is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love to think about how everything ties in together, adding to the whole. I know that many people struggle with plotting, especially creating meaningful subplots that add to the story. So read on and get C. S. Lakin’s take on this critical part of any story or novel!
Novelists focus heavily on plot, and rightly they should. Your novel needs a well-crafted and believable plot. A great story will have many plot layers. You could call them subplots, but I find it helps to think of them as layers because of the way they work in your story. Plot layers come in all thicknesses of importance, and if they are designed carefully, they will make your story a rich one with unique and lasting flavors that will linger long after your reader finishes your book.
One way that may help you in developing and deepening your plot layers is to think about your own life. You have some big goals—long-term, long-range goals, or maybe even just one—on the horizon at the moment. Maybe it’s to finish college and get that degree. Maybe it’s to start a family and create your dream life with your spouse. In a novel, that might be your main plot, which features the visible goal your protagonist is trying to reach. This is the overarching plot that all the other plot layers will sit under. But just as with a multilayer cake, when you take that bite, the different flavors of the layers should complement each other and create a delightful overall taste.
As that “plot” plays out in your life, other things encroach or dovetail that goal. You may be dealing with some personal issue—like a recurring health problem or a former boyfriend who keeps showing up against your wishes. You may also be dealing with trivial things like trying to decide what color to paint your bedroom, and the paint store guy, who’s completely incompetent, can’t get the color right.
Life is made up of layers. I picture them by their size and scope. You have the big, fat layer of the main plot on top, then different layers underneath of different thicknesses and flavors. All this creates a very rich cake. If life were just one sole “plot” (“I gotta get that college degree”), it would be boring and so would you. And so are novels that only have one plot layer. Life is complex. It’s messy. We’re told to complicate our characters’ lives. Well, this is the best way to do it—by introducing many layers of plot, and not just for your protagonist but for your secondary characters as well.
If you can create three layers at least, think of them as plots A, B, and C. You know your A plot—it’s the main one driving your story. But now you need B and C. You want B to be an important layer that will help the main plot along—either something that enhances Plot A or runs headlong into conflict with it. Plot C will be thinner and more trivial, and may even add that comic relief in your tension (picture your character trying to get the paint guy with myopia to see the obvious difference between the two mismatched paint swatches). Believe it or not, Plot C can serve the purpose of revealing a lot of emotion and character (ever thrown a hissy fit at a store when you’re having a bad day over something else?).
Take this a step further and imagine one of your secondary, supportive characters in your novel dealing with an issue that juxtaposes with your protagonist’s issues. What if Ann, your hero, is fighting infertility, and at her peak of despair at being unable to conceive, her best friend Joan not only learns she’s accidentally gotten pregnant—she’s going in for an abortion. Can you see how this plot layer can add depth to your story by providing a place to reveal more of your protagonist’s needs, fears, and personality?
In a mystery I wrote that needed a big revision, I decided to make a secondary character my protagonist. Fran is a bit sketchy in the original story; you know a little about her life, personality, and tastes. She’s a homicide detective investigating the hit-and-run that frames my story. But now I needed to bring her to the forefront. Not only did I deepen her involvement with the main plot and increase the number of her scenes, I added an ongoing, growing tension with her teenage son that exposed issues of trust and believability—elements that are key themes of my main plot. Fran doesn’t really believe in her perp’s claims of innocence, nor does she believe her son’s when he insists he didn’t hack the school’s computer. In the midst of all this, she hates the LA heat, has terrible asthma, so my Plot C is the aggravating element of her air conditioner at home always going on the fritz—which compounds and exacerbates the tension and “heat” in her house and family life. Play with your themes; think of ways you can create these plot layers, and then find places in your novel, or create new scenes, where you can add these in. If you do, you will end up with a delicious, irresistible story readers will love to dig into.
C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the seven-book fantasy series “The Gates of Heaven.” She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, including her Zondervan contest winner Someone to Blame. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach the craft of writing. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life: www.LiveWriteThrive.com and www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com. Come join in! You can read more about her and her books at www.cslakin.com.
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