During the writing process, there is a time when everything just comes out, everything in your mind gets dumped, or perhaps you have no idea what you want to write and just let your fingers fly over the keyboard, taking you wherever they like. Then you’re finished, and now you have this thing you want to run with, or you don’t even think about it- you just take it and go. But then comes a point where someone says, or perhaps you see, that there’s not enough description, or a few of the characters are too quiet, or you just feel that something’s missing. Well, that’s when it’s time to “layer”. What is “layering”? Well, you have to understand what comes before layering to get why layering is important, and what it is. Take a scene that you word-vomited out to break through a writer’s block. You hate the scene, hate what you wrote, and hate where it’s going. Great! But you broke through the mental wall, and you threw out what you wrote or fixed what you didn’t like, so now you have something decent. Then a few days later you go back and look at it, and suddenly there’s a whole lot missing. Take this sentence for example-
“Three people sat in the sunlight at the kitchen table, talking about their money problems with a movie they wanted to see.”
This room didn’t get described enough- there’s light coming through the window but I never even said that there was a window, three people are seated at a table and all of them are talking, but I never said who came in when, where they’re seated, or even what their name is. (Okay, so maybe it’s not that bad). So what do you do? Well, you go back and say that there’s a nice, double-paned window with grids in it letting the sunlight stream onto the kitchen table. You go back and say:
Fred, Nance, and Candic came in through the back door and sat down at the kitchen table, trying to figure out how three people were going to go to a movie with only enough money for two tickets.
That’s a lot more vivid than just saying “Three people sat in the sunlight at the kitchen table, talking about their money problems with a movie they wanted to see.” Look at the following scene, and focus on the stained glass windows in both.
“Tell me, Captain, what do you think happened to Kira?” the tall, well-built man standing in the newly-acquired throne room asked, his back to the officer behind him as he stood gazing at the stain-glass windows behind the dead monarch’s seat.
“Well, sir, I’m not really sure.” the captain said uncomfortably, uncertain what his leader wanted from him.
“Oh, come now, Captain, I don’t want to know what they say happened, I want to know what you think happened.” Obsidian said, making the effort to tear his gaze away from the ornate depictions of their country’s history and look at the pitiful excuse for an officer cowering before him. “You understand how important she is to me, and the success of my plans, don’t you? So I want you to conjecture, use that brain that’s gotten you so far in my ranks; humor me.”
“Well, sir, as I said, I’m not quite sure. I don’t know what to believe about what happened. It goes beyond my experience…” the captain began, but Obsidian held up his hand, silencing him.
Now, I said to pay attention to the stained glass windows. Where were they? Well, they were just…there. I didn’t do much with them, did I? Now, most writers (especially good ones) don’t have sentences in their narratives like “Now, pay attention to this, because this is important!” So let’s try a little “layering.”
“Tell me, Captain Izok, what do you think happened to Kira?” the tall, well-built man standing in his newly-acquired throne room asked. He stood with his back to the officer behind him as he gazed at the stain-glass windows behind the dead monarch’s seat, bathing in the streams of red, blue, and yellow light pouring around him. Out of all the treasures he’d found in the palace, the simple beauty and elegance of filtered light never failed to impress him. He held up one hand, watching it change color as he plunged it into a shaft of red light, and leaned back casually against the gold gilded throne. The bright colors stood in stark contrast to the stone masonry of the room’s walls, which were constructed of a gray blue stone, and their cold oppressiveness was only slightly muted by the bright tapestries lining the walls. Obsidian let a grin creep onto his face as he let the light play over his hand, the dullness of the walls forgotten.
“Well, sir, I’m not really sure,” the captain said uncomfortably, dragging Obsidian’s attention back to the dullness of his inferior.
“Oh, come now, Captain, I don’t want to know what they say happened, I want to know what you think happened,” Obsidian said, making the effort to tear his gaze away from the ornate depictions of their country’s history and look at the pitiful excuse for an officer cowering before him. “You understand how important she is to me, and the success of my plans, don’t you? So I want you to conjecture, use that brain that’s gotten you so far in my ranks. Humor me.”
“Well, sir, as I said, I’m not quite sure. I don’t know what to believe about what happened. It goes beyond my experience…” Captain Izok said, shifting his wait to his other foot, but Obsidian held up his hand, silencing him. Clearly, he would have to be more blunt with the man.
Now, that’s much better, isn’t it? But notice that that’s not the only thing that’s been changed. The Captain, who was nameless in the first paragraph, now has a name: Izok. And Obsidian’s personality is shown a little bit more, with a dab of description added here, a brief addition there. So layering isn’t just focusing on something that you feel needs more detail and fleshing that portion out; layering includes adding the finer details. Basically, layering is adding more details to a scene, no matter how great or small. The final product is what has all the layers, and from a reader’s perspective it's really hard to tell where it's been layered once it's done. However, readers can tell where a work needs to be layered more.
Think of a cake, say a three layer, circular, chocolate cake. Now, if you just set the three individual cakes on top of each other, you'd have three layers, but they wouldn't gel together very well. So you take vanilla icing and add a layer between the big layers of the cake, and suddenly the cake has been cemented more firmly, has a stronger foundation. But it's still kind of ugly on the outside, its rough edges still show, and it doesn't look appetizing. So you take more icing and cover up all the rough spots, blend the thick layers of the cake and the thin layers of icing supporting that cake, and cover the top in icing to make it uniform.
But that's kind of plain. So now we break out the nice, pink decorative icing and create a border of pink along the top edge of the white cake, a nice, thick ribbon of icing. Then we take yellow icing and make little flowers in regular intervals in a ring on the top, and then make flowing banners of icing on the sides of the cake with the remaining pink and yellow icing. And to top it all off, we add just a few pinches of green icing for leaves for the flowers. The end result is lots of layering, and a beautiful cake, but a cohesive masterpiece. It's the same for writing, only the layers aren't always so easy to identify, nor is there a step-by-step, one-size-fits-all formula that says how to layer each and every scene. For example, some scenes, like the example above, may need more description on a certain aspect that the author wants to focus on or didn't describe enough initially. In others, there made be a serious lack of dialogue, or too much. And then there are times when the balance is just off and you have to add tiny, miniscule weights to the scene (an extra word here, a sentence there), and shave elsewhere (cutting a word, phrase, or character quote). Readers and writers may be able to point out specific parts of the layering that they like or thought was well-done, but unlike the cake can't say if that part of the story was from the beginning, like the cake layers, or a later addition, like the yellow icing flowers.
So how do you know if you have enough layers on your writing? It’s not as easy to see as the cake analogy, where the errors are obvious and glaring. So… time to pretend to be detectives! Remember those great questions “Who, what, where, when, why?” Quick note: some prefer to include “How?” and “How often, to what extent?” are niggling in the back of my mind for some reason, but all three of those fall under the five questions previously stated. With that addressed, this is how it breaks down.
Who: the people (everyone) in the scene
What: the events taking place [in the scene assumed from here on out]
Where: the setting
When: the time
Why: the events that transpired to bring the scene into being, what the motivation and expectation of each character is, their ‘agenda’ for bringing that end-result about, and what you want this scene to accomplish.
There could be more that I didn’t list, or you may not think that one of those “why’s” is where it belongs, and that’s fine. It’s just a brief taste of the last one. A quick aside: ever notice how hard it is to answer “Why?” All those little children running up to you, asking, “Why is this this way? Why does that do that?” Just think of that, and then try to think just how many times you haven’t been able to come up with an answer, and apply that to your writing. Stop! Don’t panic. You don’t have to worry “What’s the ‘why’?” for every sentence you type. That’s not realistic. Just look at the ‘why’ while editing.
Now you have the list. Great! So what do you do with it? Well, to get into the habit of layering, take a scene (any scene; it doesn’t matter which at this point), and start filling in the list.
Once you’ve identified all of these [don’t freak out about ‘why’; remember, the main purpose of ‘why’ is so you know what your goal is. No goal, no direction, no good writing], then examine each component. Do you have enough description of each person? Have you showed what they’re doing? Did you miss something in your rush to get it all out? A good tip for making sure you get all the what- try listing all the items a character has to see if they used something you didn’t tell the readers they had. Take the following scene, a sergeant and his squad of men going to capture a rogue named Seth.
The sergeant and the two scouts following him crouched behind a hut two over from Seth’s, and watched and waited for the other four scouts to get into position. The sergeant waited patiently, then sensed more than saw the four blurs that were the scouts establishing a perimeter around their query’s home. He nodded to the two behind him, and they spread out to complete the ring around Seth’s hut. The sergeant waited to a count of three, then sprinted over to Seth’s front door. He stopped in front of it, hand poised to knock, but waited for two breaths as the squad tightened the ring, effectively sealing off Seth’s escape routes. The sergeant drew his sword, then kicked in the hut’s door. He stepped in, and two things registered in his mind: the first, that Seth was completely unprepared, the raid unexpected as planned; and the second that Seth wasn’t alone. Seth was kneeling next to a reclined figure on the ground, a woman with coppery hair and bronze skin. The hut was dimly lit, the straw window blinds let in thin slats of light, illuminating little around the two cots laying on the ground. Seth spun around, drawing his sword and shield in one smooth motion.
The sergeant and the two scouts following him crouched behind a hut two over from Seth’s, and watched and waited for the other four scouts to get into position. The sergeant waited patiently, then sensed more than saw the four blurs that were the scouts establishing a perimeter around their query’s home. He nodded to the two behind him, and they spread out to complete the ring around Seth’s hut. After waiting for a count of three, he sprinted over to Seth’s front door and stopped in front of it, his balled fist poised to knock. Instead of knocking, he waited for two breaths as the squad tightened the ring, effectively sealing off Seth’s escape routes. Drawing his sword, he kicked in the hut’s door. He stepped in, and two things registered in his mind: the first, that Seth was completely unprepared, the raid unexpected as planned; and the second that Seth wasn’t alone. Seth was kneeling next to a reclined figure on the ground, his long sword and shield strapped across his back. Always prepared, the sergeant thought as he saw Seth. The woman Seth kneeled next to was short, almost petite, and had a mop of shiny, coppery orange hair that hid most of her bronze-skinned face. The hut was dimly lit, the straw window blinds letting in thin slats of light, illuminating little around the two cots laying on the ground. Seth spun around, drawing his sword and shield in one smooth motion.
The biggest thing that had to be edited with this scene was that I didn’t tell the reader Seth had a sword, or where it was. In the first scene, he just spins up and “Shazzam!” he’s got one. The same with his shield. And the girl is better described, although there’s not much more information given about her. It’s just in a different place. Then, with the sergeant’s thoughts, Seth is shown to be someone who’s always prepared, especially for an event like this one. So simple things really do make a big difference with layering, and the smallest thing can have as big of, or an even greater, impact than a repaired ‘foundational’ error. And it’s often the small things that grab a reader’s attention, whether as a distraction and a detriment, or a memorable image.