The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.
– Daniel J. Boorstin
Weekly Word Counts
Novel draft: 803
Short prose: 1161
Editing hours: N/A
I’ve been thinking a lot about layers in fiction lately. And until I started thinking about this (I read some articles and such that got my wheels spinning), I didn’t realize that my plots tend to be pretty one-dimensional stories. It’s partially a side-effect of “pantsing” – I don’t know where the story’s going until I get to whatever point it branches off at, and I don’t know anything about most of my characters until I discover it while I’m writing. After I get done with a draft, if I do think up more layers that would flesh the story out, so to speak, I’m often too lazy to go back and “revise” them in. I can see hints of where I nearly got it right in my older stories, but so far, I’ve been missing that particular boat.
It’s not that I think my plots are bad. But some of them are just thin, and need to be filled in with more details and description.
Story layers, as it turns out, comes from knowing a lot more about the character’s backgrounds than the reader, and exploiting that knowledge. It’s about knowing the history behind the story I’m telling, and deep details about the setting, and being able to leverage all of that to make a deeply layered “story space” that meshes it all into one, richly layered story.
Here’s where our quote of the week above comes in: I thought I knew how to do this. Or rather, I thought that because I was enjoying the story as I wrote it, and there was enough detail for *me*, that there was enough detail to entertain a wider audience as well. And I was wrong. Which is fine (ie, I’m not being all pity-party/whiny here, just noting facts).
To be clear, some people have enjoyed my earlier books and short stories. Some stories have been more successful than others, and some have languished. But they haven’t caught on with a wider audience, and I think this is at least one of the reasons why (my non-existent marketing skills are undoubtedly another).
Yes, you say. But you’ve been thinking this to death. What are you going to *do* to fix it? And when? As it turns out, I need to break the process down and work on it one section at a time, rather than trying to keep track of it all at once. For now. Eventually I’ll be able to create richly layered stories more automagically, but only once I can recognize and properly execute the different types of layers separately. It’s just how my mind works.
So that’s what I’m doing, and I’ve already been working on it this past week, with what I think are good results. Mostly in the form of world-building. Even that, I’ve started to break down into its component parts.
For example, I have a few different fictional towns I like to set my stories in. Calling them “settings” is really a misnomer at this point – I came up with a name and general location, and then just wrote what I needed for the story in as I needed it. I never once actually sat down and thought about what else was in the town, or any of its history aside from what I needed for that particular story. And that didn’t bother me because since I started writing, I’ve been focused on the characters and the actual story/plot, leaving the setting as just “filler”, basically.
I realize now that if I knew how my fictional towns are laid out, where the buildings are, why they are there in relation to other buildings, and what the history of the town is, I can really use all of that information as a layer that peeks through the narrative at key times and gives the story atmosphere and richer detail.
To the other writers out there who may be reading this and going “well, duh”…whatever. Keep your judgmental comments (I swear, writers – especially those who make money doing this – can be some of the most judgmental people I know) and eye-rolling to yourself. We all figure this out as we go, unless you just automatically knew from the start, in which case, kudos to you. I didn’t, but I’m learning now.
In any case, I spent a fair amount of time thinking up the details for a manor and its estate in one of my fictional towns this past week. Details, history, location, and by extension, part of the town layout and topography. I’ll finish the town layout and history this next week. I’ve only used this particular town in one draft so far, so I can go back in revision and edit the parts of the story that take place in the town to include little details I couldn’t before. And of course I’ll have all of it, including my manor estate, done and ready for reference when I start on the next draft and any other stories I might write that will be set there.
You can visit alter-ego Alex’s site to read about the manor estate, if you’re interested…
More world-building next week, and then…on to character building/histories. Back to basics, as they say.