Digging Deep: The Psychology of a Layered Story

Humans like complexity; puzzles, questions, layers. It fascinates us. My guess it’s because there are so many complex systems in nature that our brain needs to navigate successfully. Ecosystems, weather systems, the tax system…But the one that has the most influence on our evolution are social systems.

Our relationships were vital to our survival. Throughout the ages, fellow humans have been our friends— the ones we collaborate and cooperate with to gain more resources, and our foes—our competitors who can hold the power of whether we live or die. These relationships gave rise to social systems: rules, expectations, and norms. These same social systems are enduring but constantly changing, strongly connected but disjointed, adaptive but counter-intuitive (like, why do I bother asking my sons if they’re hungry?). As writer, what’s important to know, is that the minute evolution finds something that enhances our survivability, it lights up our neurons and makes it pleasurable (think calorie rich cheesecake or gene reproducing sex).  

So it’s not surprising the brain is drawn to complexity (think about a piece of art that caught your attention—did it have layers?), is curious about complexity (did you spend time wondering and pondering?), and attends to complexity (how long did you stand there, wondering and pondering?).

It’s why complexity in stories also attracts us, and I’m going to hypothesize that a significant proportion of best-selling novels capture complexity in their pages. As I think of the novels that I loved, the ones that stayed with me, they all had complications, intricacies and layers. They were complex.

And I don’t just mean a complex plot. Complexity isn’t all about the whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming. It’s more than that, and to explain it, I’m going to use permaculture. For any non-horticulturalists out there, permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. How does it relate to writing? Well, you’re either about to learn a valuable strategy for writing awesome scenes, or you’re about to wonder about the convoluted mechanics of my brain…

One of the principles of permaculture is that any element in your garden needs to perform more than one function. Chickens? Yes, they produce eggs. But they’re also scrap munchers, manure makers and little walking tractors. Feed them your left over lunch, then use them to turn over old garden beds, and fertilize them in the process. The eggs are almost a bonus! A grape vine growing on a trellis? At the right angle, it can provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for a bunch of veggies, it can provide a nice little micro-climate for the strawberry bed beneath, oh, and its fruit and leaves are edible.

A good scene will do the same. It works on more than one level. Through careful consideration and design (just like a permaculturalist), you add more value for your reader, more experiences and emotions and information for your reader to devour. You’d already have an idea of the function of your scene  — usually moving the plot forward. Here are some ‘layers’ you can add to a scene to add complexity:

Deepen characterization

Let your readers learn something about your character they didn’t know. Let their quirks shine through, slip in a little of their backstory or their wound or their strengths. As they learn about how the plot is evolving, let them learn about this person they’re journeying with.

Explore theme

Use a little symbolism or metaphorical word play to explore the deeper question, worldview, philosophy, message, moral, or lesson your book is probing.  You could slip it into dialogue, the setting, or your secondary characters.

Explore a secondary character

Your secondary characters are a great way to explore theme, but they can also be a juxtaposition or complement to your main character (and/or antagonist). Use them to elicit emotion in your reader — whether it’s empathy for them or for your hero. Expand the focus of your scene to include interesting and valuable information about them, too.


I do love some nice foreshadowing, both as a writer and as a reader. Foreshadowing elicits intrigue, which in cognitive terms, means curiosity. Whilst entrancing and educating your readers about what’s happening right now, you can give them a taste of what might be coming…

Deepen setting

Your setting is a character in itself. It can help your hero, or be a major roadblock (either literally or metaphorically). It can set the mood, provide context (e.g. the culture or the historical period) and denotes the passage of time. Weave it into your scene like a best-selling author.

Show off your writing talent

Sprinkle a little purple prose or a few clever metaphors. Implement those literary devices or challenge the ‘rules’ of writing. As you take your reader on this ride, do it in style. Most importantly, do it your way.

So, if you have a scene that you think might be a little ‘flat’, or if you’re looking to jazz one up so it has more impact, I recommend engaging your green thumb and employing this handy little permaculture principle: every scene must perform more than one function.

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also a USA Today best-selling author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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This entry was posted in Backstory, Characters, Description, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Setting, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Theme, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Digging Deep: The Psychology of a Layered Story

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 07-11-2019 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Lance Haley says:

    I have to laugh at myself.

    The fireworks stopped, the dog finally fell asleep, and I was so fascinated with reading about the psychology of layering a story with elements of complexity that I did not realize it was Tamar writing this post until I reached the end! 🙂

    Welcome back, girl. I knew you had been on sabbatical and wasn’t sure if this was just a quick guest post, or are you are returning back to the game. Either way, another great entry by one of my favorite writing coaches. Tamar knows how much I love weaving human psychology throughout my writing.

    Hope all is well with you and your family, and you got some much needed time to decompress and focus on your life, as well as your own writing. Your followers miss you. Take care!



    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Hello, Lance!

      So awesome to hear from you 🙂 Just doing the guest posts at the moment – life isn’t slowing down!

      Hope your own writing is coming along well,

  3. Steve says:

    I love that you mention that setting is a character in itself. It is so true, the feel and substance of an environment takes on the form of a living being and transports us so much better into the world of a good story.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Totally agree, Steve. Books are so much richer when their world building is treated like another character 🙂

  4. Jay Hicks says:

    Brilliant as always Tamar. Thank you.

  5. I think this is why I love series so much (reading and writing them). I feel like there’s more room to really unravel the complexities of the characters and their world. 🙂

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      So true, Angela! Series are a wonderful way to keep digging deeper into our characters and their world. It’s one of the reasons I love writing them so much 🙂

  6. Those layers are what make each scene magical. It’s a challenge, though—hard enough to nail the main purpose for a given passage. As a diehard planner, this is where planning really helps me. Figure out all those nuances beforehand and make sure you follow through throughout the story, and it’s a lot easier to keep track of everything.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Yep, plotting and planning allows me to do the same 🙂 I can sit back and look at each chapter and get a sense of what I’m trying to achieve in each one.

  7. Excellent analogy! I continually strive to add layers and complexity…but I haven’t mastered the skill yet. Thank you for sharing your insight!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      So glad it was useful! Writing has so many parallels in life. And yes, I agree – easier said than done!!

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