Monday, May 16, 2011

Layering A Scene

I’m in the middle of rewrites for my YA. I’m one of those writers who plow through a very rough draft, getting it down as fast as I can, so that I can get to the good part – the rewrites. For me that’s mostly layering the scenes to add texture and meaning.

Why layer? Ultimately writer’s goal is to achieve Maximum Emotional Impact, and layering your scene is one of the tools for increasing emotional hits. Also, how you layer a scene also helps create that elusive thing we call “your voice”.

Layering is something you work on after you’ve finished the first draft, primarily because it involves analytical/critical thinking. When you’re drafting, you should be in creative mode and stay in the mode. That means turning off the internal editor. (I have a piece of paper tacked over my computer that says, “I give myself permission to write crap.”) Layering turns the internal editor back on, so it’s best saved for after you’ve finished the first draft, though as you get more comfortable with the things you need to layer in, you’ll find yourself doing some of it automatically as you draft.

First some definitions:

A “scene” is a continuous piece of action that takes place in a single location and has a specific beginning and end. It covers a distinctive and usually short period of time.

A scene is:

  • Breakfast the first day of school in a household with teens. Teenage daughter comes down inappropriately dressed.
  • The entry of the heroine at a Regency ball and the reaction she gets. (That could be a complete scene, depending on how long the ball sequence is.)

A “sequence” is several contiguous scenes whose action leads up to a climax or turning point.

For example, in my novel The Deadly Peace, one of the sequences is:

  1. In the armory, the heroine and her companions discuss how to push the heroine’s Regent father into setting a coronation date for her. They formulate a plan, which the heroine doesn’t like because it involves the hero, whom she considers an ally of her father.
  2. In the infirmary. They bargain with the hero to help them.
  3. In the library. The hero is caught by the father giving help and grilled.
  4. In the father’s workroom. The heroine is brought to task for trying to go around her father’s back. The heroine gets an unexpected ally in the hero, whom previously she thought her enemy.

 We’re focusing here on scenes, not sequences. When you’re working on layering, each scene needs to be analysed separately and also for how it contributes to the sequence.

I go about layering level-by-level, starting with the highest level, which I call the “Plot Level”. Levels are my own arbitrary term. Working at layering this way helps me to keep my thoughts focused.

The Plot Level is about whether the scene is doing its job within the story. Today scenes need to pull a lot of weight. The length of the average single title has gone from 100,000 to 80,000 words. Author Beth Cornelison, in her workshop on sagging middles at the 2010 RWA conference, says that every scene needs to have at least three reasons to be there.

If you’re a pantser (a person who gets an idea and, trusting your Muse, starts writing without doing much planning), you’ve probably got scenes that don’t need to be there or that somehow got off track or aren’t pulling their load within the novel. I started as a pantser, but with my WIP Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty, I actually outlined the whole book, as I wanted to learn to be more efficient in my writing. As a result, I managed to draft the thing in about 6 weeks. But when I was stuck, I would just say to myself, “Write anything. Just write. You can fix it later.” So there are a number of scenes that have needed first aid.

The Plot Level asks the questions, “Do I need this scene? How can I make it work its butt off to move the story forward?”

To answer this question, you’ve got to start with the underlying conflict that drives the book. Michael Hague, in his scriptwriting workshops (one of which I took centuries ago when I was a selling playwright), suggests creating a 2 x 2 conflict grid in which you list
  • the protagonist and antagonist’s goals in the first column
  •  the actions which keep them from achieving their goals in the second column.

 If you’re having trouble visualizing this, Jennifer Cruise has it up on her blog. (The post is full of hints on how to set up the basic conflict, a great place to start if you're struggling with that.)
If you’ve got a strong conflict, the actions that keep the protagonist from achieving her/his goals should be the same actions that the antagonist takes to achieve his/her goals, and vice versa.

Once you’ve got that grid, look at your scene and ask how does the scene advance the conflict?

For example, in the sequence from The Deadly Peace I described above, my heroine’s overall goal is to be crowned as the Queen of Rhyged, King Arthur’s largest subkingdom. There’s a ticking clock on this, as an old prophesy says that if the Heiress isn’t crowned by her eighteenth birthday, she never will be. My heroine’s father, the Regent, wants the crown for himself and his sons (traditionally it passes down through the female line, but the times, they are a-changing). So he has done nothing about the coronation. My heroine’s goal for this sequence is to get the date set for the coronation. The first scene sets up the problem, presents a possible solution – go around her father’s back and set the date herself – along with complications, and reveals the heroine’s character flaw (more on this in my next blog.) In other words, it sets the heroine on the first step of her journey to get her crown. It advances the plot.

In the example of breakfast scene with the single mom trying to get her kids off to school, the appearance of the inappropriately dressed teen daughter could send the story off in a number of ways:

1) Argument over clothes. Mother fails to assert herself and teen wins. If Mom is the heroine of a romance, this could set up a whole book in which Mom’s failing to assert herself leads to unhappiness and disaster.

2) The phone rings in the middle of the argument. It’s Mom’s father who says in a tense, frightened voice, “Don’t send the kids to school. Put them in the car and get out of town. Don’t pack. Don’t do anything. Just go.” Before he can explain, there’s a horrible sound at the end of the line that sounds like something’s happened to him. Now the argument with the teen is forgotten. And Mom is thrown into an adventure in which she and her kids are running for their lives – or she is struggling to find and save her father. Or both.

3) Argument over clothes. Mother wins. Daughter changes. Kids get off to school on time. Ho hum. Yes, there’s conflict, but this scene isn’t pulling its weight. Unless you can figure out a way to tie it to the overriding conflict of the book, this is a scene to cut. And don’t tell me you’re just trying to show the protagonist’s Ordinary World. In today’s novels, that can be incorporated into the Inciting Action – the event that sets off the conflict and puts the heroine on her journey.

If you’re waffling back and forth and really don’t want to kill that darling, here’s a tip: I never hit the delete button when I cut a scene. I cut and paste it into a separate file and put it into my Outtakes folder. I may want it back. Or possibly I might use it as bonus material on my website when the book gets published.

Rhay Cristou (her YA novel Color of Truth made it to the semi finals of the Amazon Breakthrough competition in 2010 and her current WIP Bliss is in the 2011 semi finals) sent me this titbit that helps me focus on whether the scene is advancing the plot:

“One of the questions that my advisor Norma Fox Mazer always asked me in grad school: "Rhay what does your character want and how does this scene move her/him to or away from obtaining that want?" I know it's a basic question but one that I think we often forget to ask ourselves when living our stories. Once you keep asking yourself that question-- What does she want and more importantly how does this scene move the character to that (and yep you have to be able to write out that answer) -- then you'll know if these scenes are really doing the job you want them to do.”

“What does your character want?” leads to the next level of layering a scene: the Character Arc Level. Which is the topic of next week’s blog post.






  1. Wonderful post,Vicky. I got caught up in the two stories, too!

  2. Your stories sound interesting Vicky. My first novel, a murder mystery made it into the semi-finals of the Amazon/Penguin Breakthrough novel contest, which was very exciting and helpful to my career. I'm a panster, but then I shape a scene after I write it.


  3. Thank you for sharing this with those of us on the teen lit loop, Vicky! This is very helpful--and just guess what I am doing right now! Layering, layering, layering. And cutting scenes, too... :)

  4. Great post, Vicky. But at which point do I give myself permission to stop myself writing crap!

  5. Awesome post, Vicky. Thanks. This will come in handy as I'm (finally) about to jump into the next wip. I'll look at your friend's link, too. Much appreciated!