Lesson #71: Adding Layers to a Plot


My dad has a best-seller story idea.

Are you ready?

He died. They all went home. The end.

(That’s not the plot. That’s the book. All of it. *clears throat* He’s not much of a reader…)

Though there are many plot “skeletons” and formats we generally use in fiction (as the wonderful example above could potentially be), making a story unique means adding several (if not, lots) of plot layers.

What does this mean? Let me show you.

Frodo inherits the ring. Frodo brings the ring to Mordor. Frodo destroys the ring.

End of story. Right? Wroooooooong. Tolkien’s classic stories would never have become classics if they had stuck to this bland of a storyline. No – Tolkien added layers to the plot. Layers upon layers upon layers… (some people may even say “too many” layers – but, I mean, really? How can you have too many layers?)

So, let’s see how this story might be spiced up a bit.

Frodo inherits the ring. Frodo’s Hobbit friends tag along. Frodo doesn’t know what to do so he brings the ring to the elves. On the road, he meets Strider. (Side plot: Strider – AKA Aragorn, AKA Elisar, heir of Gondor – is running from his past; he has lived a long life; he knows things – lots of things, etc.). Strider takes the four Hobbits to the elves, but on the way, they are attacked by Ring Wraiths (Side plot: the Ring Wraiths are the seven men who were given rings of power – but they were corrupt; they now serve the dark lord Sauron, etc.). Frodo is injured and almost dies. Etc. etc. etc.

Do you see how this makes the story more interesting? We see conflict. We see backstory/history. We see progression. We see character development. The more layers there are, the more interesting the story will be. There’s a reason Tolkien’s books are read, studied, and written about across the globe (many college dissertations have been written about Tolkien, might I add). So, maybe you don’t need as many layers as Tolkien; he did, of course, have an entire world with a complex history mapped out which he had crafted and created for 50+ years. But no matter how much you write, I promise you can always take a tip from Tolkien and safely say: add more layers! (They may not all be published, if that is your end goal. But I say that you can never come up with too many plots/layers/side stories).

How many layers does your story have? I’ve found it helpful to make a graph of the layers of my story. I start with the basics. If we look at a plot as a skeleton, these would be the “general” skeletal areas – the legs, the arms, the torso, etc. For example: Frodo inherits the ring. Frodo goes to Mordor to destroy the ring. Frodo destroys the ring. Ta-da.

Then, I move onto the most important layers. Together, these “bones” make up the complete skeleton. These are the plot lines you’d tell a friend if you had two minutes to sum up a plot. For example: Frodo has Hobbit friends with him on his journey. Frodo takes the ring to the elves, first. Frodo meets the Fellowship of the Ring in Rivendell. Etc.

Then, I move onto the second most important layers – I like to call these the “fluffers.” These are the stuff that are “essentially non-essential.” In other words, they don’t need to be on the back-cover blurb or in the one-paragraph synopsis; but they are essential to making the story interesting. These could be considered the “flesh” of the story. For example: Frodo and his Hobbit friends bump into a Ring Wraith on the road to the Prancing Pony. Gandalf is not at the Prancing Pony waiting for them. Etc.

And finally, I move onto the more “detail-ish” layers. The color of the eyes/hair, etc. on our plot-body. For example: Frodo and Sam have gone further away from the Shire than they have ever traveled before – this causes internal emotions (fear, sadness, excitement, etc.) When they make it to the Prancing Pony, Pippin accidently tells everyone who Frodo is and there’s a strange man watching them from the corner of the room – Frodo thinks he’s probably a bad guy… Etc.

Bottom line: add layers to your plot! If you have “too much,” your editors and critique partners can help you trim back. But it’s better to have too much than too little to work with.

How does your plot look? How many layers do you have? Do you have any tips on how to write strong/intriguing plot layers? Let us know in the comments below!

With pen to paper,

Kayla Woodhouse

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *