You worked on your manuscript for the last few years, now it is finally out, and people are starting to read it. It’s exciting until that one person comments on it, saying the story is flat and one-dimensional. You gasp. What went wrong? Often, it’s not layering your stories.
Layering your stories adds different elements to your main story. It gives the reader some perspective, a break, and it moves the story along. Nothing is as boring as getting to know everything about a character through dialogue. Or even worse: a monologue. But what can you do to make your story nice and juicy?
Tip 1: write different storylines
When you start working on the story, you often focus on only the main character’s storyline. Take a look at life, however, and you will see that even from your perspective, there is more than just one thing going on. Your story should not be just about one incident either.
In screenwriting, there is something called the A-B-C stories. The A-story tells you all about the main event. A detective entering a murder scene, what happened? The B-story is about a character close to your protagonist and parallel to the main story. The detective’s partner struggles with this case because his sister was found murdered in the same way. The C-story completely steps away from this all. In a series, it is called the runner. It can go on during multiple books, I highly recommend adding such a storyline. For a stand-alone, have this storyline run throughout the chapters. In this case, our detective is about to become a father, and we witness how he and his wife prepare their lives for when their little boy arrives. Which happens at the peak of the case, of course.
Break the A-B-C stories down in chunks. The main story is A. This gets the most time, B parallels that, so it gets the second most time. And C… Well, if you would just focus on C, it would be a story about parents to be, and the rest would play in the background. You guessed it. Give it time, but the least of all.
Tip 2: add action
When I write, I love to include actions that my characters take. They have strong inner monologues, but hardly any dialogues. Because that’s how I perceive the world. And not just me. Science proves that 80 percent of our waking hours are spent on communication. But only 30 percent of that is speaking, and 45 percent is listening. So to me, it just doesn’t make sense to be talking all the time.
When I have my characters communicate with others, I add some non-verbal actions to get across what they mean. Just like in real life, actions say more than words. This can also help to layer your stories. Look at this example:
Ginny shivered. Her stomach flipped, and her breath got caught somewhere between her throat and her chest. Samuel’s eyes seemed to pierce right through her. How could she refuse him? She would rather cut off her left foot. So she raised her chin in the air, swallowed hard, and then nodded slightly.
‘I need you to say it,’ his raspy voice asked.
‘I’ll do it.’
‘Very well. I must say I didn’t think you would.’
Her face lit up, and she flashed him a bright smile. Did she manage to surprise him?
Playing with the inner world and the outer world through actions shows the reader a possible conflict within the character. You can use it to add an extra dimension and help layer your stories.
Tip 3: Use a theme throughout your story
When you have written down your first draft, ask yourself what your story is really about. It might feel redundant to do it after writing, but sometimes only then can you see the clear picture. Dive deep. What is the theme that ties the lot together? What is the message you want to put out? The meaning behind it all?
I am not talking about the plot of the story, but the lessons learned by the characters. The theme isn’t murder but the impact of trauma at birth and throughout early childhood. It’s not about an attack from outer space but who you are as a person during moments of utter panic.
If you struggle with finding out your theme, ask yourself some questions. Know why you want to tell this story and what you want people to take away from it. Are you touching on topics as politics, abuse, infidelity, mental health problems, physical illness, etc.? Do you let your opinion shine through, or the questions you have on the topic? Your wonder? Does your character change throughout the theme? If so, how? And finally, make sure you check your story for universal themes such as love, fear, or survival.
Don’t try too hard
I have just explained three different ways to layer your stories, but remember that it has to come naturally. Being aware of the possibilities will help you recognize opportunities and ways to strengthen your stories. This does not mean you have to force it all in. When the layers don’t fit into the story, they will be counterproductive. The story might feel inconsistent or weak even. Find your sweet spot.
When you let it come naturally to you, and you think about these options, you will be able to lift your story from being superficial to being engaging. The reader will be sucked in and able to relate to the character. So go forth and write! You got this!