Claire King


Layers not Lines

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

I’ve been trying to explain how I write – without formalising a plot (I think this makes me what is called a Pantser) – to writers who are more used to devising their plot before they start (Plotters). So here goes.

Bedtime Stories are a good example:

If you sat down with your child – or somebody else’s child – tonight and they asked you to make up a bedtime story, how would you do it? At our house when we do this, there is no plotting, you just make it up as you’re telling it.

For example, “Once upon a time there was…” What? Quickly! A dragon who was afraid to fly? A cat with no friends? A little girl who couldn’t get to sleep? A boy made of jelly?

Once you have come up with that original character-based premise, the rest of your story can quickly take shape on the hoof – the action, the setbacks, the antagonists and the ally and of course the Happily Ever After.

Starting with a premise:

When I’m writing, I work in the same way. I start with a premise. So The Night Rainbow premise was essentially ” Once upon a time there was a little girl who had no-one to take care of her.” And then I started creating the world around her. Where does she live? What would she do when she wakes up in the morning? What does she want? What danger could she be in? How would she spend her days? Why is her mother not looking after her? And so on.

The answers to these questions did not come to me in a logical manner. They bloomed, one by one, and each time they did, they came with their own questions. I wrote it all down.

Writing in Layers:

Of course a novel is much more complex than a bedtime story, but the process of starting at page one and ending at the end is still counter intuitive to me. So when I started writing these things down, I didn’t worry about starting at the beginning, I just captured it all and developed it as fully as I could at that time. It fit everywhere and nowhere in the logical construct of a novel. For example I wrote the bones of the ending quite early on. Once I knew where the girl lived I drew a map, and it became more elaborate as her adventures progressed. I had to go back into the manuscript regularly to weave in the geography.

Throughout the whole process new ideas would come to me that strengthened earlier or later sections of the book and each of those had a knock-on effect on the rest of the novel.

The ‘first draft’ was finished when I seemed to have answered all of my questions – within the narrative or within the notes alongside it. And then I asked myself…

So what would be the best way to tell this story?

The implications of this question are huge – moving whole chunks of the book from one place to another, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, making the character development consistent, ensuring foreshadowing in the right places and so on and so on.

Thank goodness for word processing and thank goodness for Scrivener which helped me stay organised.

This process took a long time and resulted in the second draft, by which time I would say the plot was clear to anyone now reading the manuscript.

Another art metaphor – writing in layers compared to painting in layers:

Another way of explaining this is by comparing the emerging story to a picture.

Rather than the narrative emerging as though from a printer – one line of pixels at a time – for me it works more like an oil painting, one layer created at a time:

In oil painting most artists paint in layers.

The artist often starts by sketching out the composition onto the canvas.

They might then proceed by painting in different colour layers working from darkest to lightest.

Entire layers can be removed if the artist isn’t happy with them.

The borders of the colors are blended together when the “mosaic” is completed.

Details are applied at the end.


And finally

This is just how I work and everyone works differently. So here are some interesting links:

A discussion here about Plotters versus Pantsers

The snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson

20 Responses

  1. Katie Knight says:

    I love the analogy of the artist, I paint, and you have described exactly how I paint and interestingly that is how I write too, ideas that build upon each other.

    • claire says:

      That’s very interesting that you work in similar ways for both creations. I’m not a painter at all but I’ve watched a friend create her oil paintings and love seeing them building up.

  2. This is very interesting. I write in this layered way too, which is probably a lot more “wasteful” in terms of time and effort, but you do dig deeper. I’m struggling now with problem of wanting to slightly shift motivation/character emphasis in first chapter, which apart from job itself will then have repercussions, some large, some small, throughout the rest of the novel. What a job!

    • claire says:

      You’re right, that’s a big job, but ultimately worth it, and thank goodness we have technology to help us these days! Good luck with it!

  3. I spent years thinking I was writing “wrong” because this is how I needed to write. I’m so glad to see someone else validating this method!

  4. Gerald says:

    I, too, love the painting analogy. I’ve recently tried starting at page one, and typing. Of course, I had the bones of the story in my head. After 6,000-odd words, it was just so … blah. Single layer, one-dimensional characters, tick follows tock, all that stuff.

    But, as a genre writer (there’s that distinction again), I need to have a plot to drive the characters’ story. And that I find works much better with pictures. I have a central character, who lives in a big circle on a piece of paper, and then around them there’s other characters in their little circles, and lines connect those who know each other or have a connection. I have to have the story as a picture, before putting cyber index cards down with plot elements – call them chapters or scenes.

    Claire – does your approach work the same with novels as with shorts? Are there enough layers, and enough oil in those layers to create a novel? I find that, to maintain a story through to beyond 50,000 words, I have to have plot elements written down. But that’s just me.

    • claire says:

      Oh it’s definitely a novel thing for me (if anything I’m much more ‘left to right’ with short stories). There are lots and lots of layers in the process, I’d say at least a dozen, and I can be anywhere in the novel at any time. This makes it difficult during writing a novel to answer the question ‘What chapter are you on?’ I’d give a sort of fumbling answer, but it wasn’t really until the second draft that there were actual proper chapters, just a lot of scenes.
      I love your picture idea, I’m very visual and often use mind maps to make sense of my thoughts when they come out too fast to write down in words!

  5. Marisa Birns says:

    Fascinating description of how you work, Claire, Even though I’ve only written very short stories recently, I know that your method is the way I go about with longer pieces.

    Writing in layers. Love it!

  6. I’m a pantser too, but I don’t write in layers. At least, not the same way. I write based on what I wrote before, so I have to follow the storyline, beginning to end. Of course I may have an idea that requires some revision of what I wrote before, so in that sense I use layers as well.

  7. Ruth Fanshaw says:

    I am NOT a pantser. I have tried repeatedly to be a pantser, but I always get bogged down. I really admire you guys who can work that way!

    But I do use layering. I do it during the outlining process, and I keep revising my outline till I reckon it’s the best I can get it. Then I write the novel.

    My brain is nowhere near organised enough to be able to keep all the detail consistent if I didn’t plan thoroughly first. I think you must have a very holistic brain! 😀 I take my hat off to you! 🙂

    • claire says:

      Thanks, Ruth. One of the things I love about meeting writers is how we all work in different ways. In the end I think success will boil down to having the confidence to write in a way that feels right to you.

  8. Fascinating post, Claire. Always good to see how others work. I’m a bit of both plotter and pantster. Tend to work linearly (is that a word?)but with no detailed plan and i develop character and plot details with each draft.

    The painting analogy is perfect.

  9. marc nash says:

    I’m with you almost totally on this. I don’t plot in advance, I want to be surprised and thrilled by the journey of writing the book, which would hopefully stand it in good stead to do the same for the reader.

    I start from when I have the mc’s voice and the central metaphor of the novel. The rest just proceeds from there.

    Thanks for sharing

  10. I guess I do the same thing, but I start differently. I start with a setting. I’m a sociology nut, and to me, interesting conflicts arise when there is a change in the basic ways a society either makes its living or reproduces. (Cultural materialism.) This could be war, famine, the invention or introduction of birth control.

    After creating an interesting setting, I start kicking around characters and work on how the setting and premise creates conflicts and limits.

    I agree that layers make the story interesting and they provide the necessary twists, turns, and depth. There has to be a societal element that influences the characters.

    • claire says:

      Good point. I’m sure someone was quoted saying something like ‘It’s not the situation that’s interesting, it’s how people react.”

  11. Gerald says:

    I’ve thought about this a bit more. The difference with the painting analogy is that appreciation of art is a non-linear process. You look at the whole work, and although you may look in detail at certain sections, it needs to work as a single, homogenous piece.

    Reading, however, is a very linear process. The reader starts at one end, and reads until the conclusion at the other end. So wouldn’t this be a vote in favour of having some sort of plotline?

    Just thinking out loud.

    • claire says:

      Oh i definitely think there should be a plot line, it’s just that I’m not one for thinking them up in advance. I read this link today which seems like a good resource for plotters:
      Incidentally, in many books the plot line is fed to we readers in a non-linear way with backstory and current events all mixed up. I suppose it depends to some extent on the work you’re expecting the reader to do (unlike a bedtime story)!

  12. Alison Wells says:

    Oh thanks for sharing this, first and foremost because now I don’t feel like a freak. However I’m aware that we do need some organisational skills and aids to move from the first to the second draft and I am trying to figure out what works. I explained what I needed to follow in my book and my husband is sending me some charts where I can plug in details so I can see where things are. I’m also going to try physically laying my scene keynotes in piles and I haven’t tried Scrievener yet but would like to find more about it for the next book. I also think that your method worked because you had a strong premise and questions to work from. Thanks for these insights. I will plow on!

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