Layering is what I call the process of blending the plot so that they do not seem dropped into the manuscript for convenience. There are a number of different portions of a story that can and should be layered: Props, character arcs, twists and turns, back story (which, when done correctly, brings in surprises for the reader), and a chief element that I wish to discuss today: conflict.
As most authors are aware, conflict is the fuel that drives plots forward. A story absent conflict is boring. Likewise, a story where the conflict is introduced and resolved in time for another conflict to arise is equally as boring and it’s what we call episodic.
Layering is the technique by which authors avoid episodic writing. This practice allows an author to build the conflict. For example: Joe and Ted are part of a small group of teenage friends. They like to hang out and have fun. They went their different ways over the summer, but now, this last weekend before school starts, they’ve all met at the lake to have some fun. The scene opens, and Joe is acting differently. He seems antsy, and he tries to talk the boys into doing things they wouldn’t have ever thought of, say racing their cars down the old twisting and turning road that leads to the lake. The boys deny Joe is fun and while Joe and Ted are out in the middle of the lake, Ted demands to know what’s wrong with him. Joe answers by nearly drowning Ted. Scene ends.
The conflict is set. We haven’t brought Joe and Ted on stage, introduced a problem and resolved it by Joe explaining his actions. The reader wants to turn the page and find out what in the world happened to Joe over the summer to make him change.
In another scene, Ted, who has avoided his best friend for a while is downtown. It’s the Friday after school has started, and Joe has skipped school a number of days. Tonight, though, he’s at the local hangout, and he’s not alone. Joe has brought a group of kids with him. These aren’t good kids. They’re gang members. They’re threatening, and everyone is afraid of them. They challenge Ted, circling around him, ready to beat him up. Ted looks into the eyes of the guy he’s known all his life, and he waits. Joe wouldn’t let him down. He’d get him out of this. Joe narrows his eyes. “Don’t beat him up too bad, boys.” Joe steps out of the circle.
Joe had now taken another step into the abyss that Ted will eventually need to pull him from, if Ted can ever forgive him. The conflict in this coming of age story is building, until it reaches a climax. Can Ted save Joe from self-destruction? What sent Joe over the edge? Did Ted have anything to do with it?
These are questions that layering will answer—not all at once but as the story unfolds.
Conflict is what makes the reader turn the page. Layer it in.