How Novelists Can Go Deep and Wide with Plot

Novelists focus heavily on plot, and rightly they should. Your novel needs a well-crafted and believable plot. A good story will have one. A great story will have many plot layers. You could call them subplots, but I find it helps to think of them as layers because of the way they work in your story.

If you feel your plot is thin and narrow, consider adding layers of plot.

Plot layers come in all thicknesses of importance, and if they are designed carefully, they will make your story a rich one with unique and lasting flavors that will linger long after your reader finishes your book.

One way that may help you in developing and deepening your plot layers is to think about your own life. You have some big goals—long-term, long-range goals, or maybe even just one—on the horizon at the moment. Maybe it’s to finish college and get that degree. Maybe it’s to start a family and create your dream life with your spouse.

In a novel, that might be your main plot, which features the visible goal your protagonist is trying to reach. This is the overarching plot that all the other plot layers will sit under. But just as with a multilayer cake, when you take that bite, the different flavors of the layers should complement each other and create a delightful overall taste.

 Life as Layers

As that “plot” plays out in your life, other things encroach or dovetail that goal. You may be dealing with some personal issue—like a recurring health problem or a former boyfriend who keeps showing up against your wishes. You may also be dealing with trivial things like trying to decide what color to paint your bedroom, and the paint store guy, who’s completely incompetent, can’t get the color right.

Life is made up of layers. I picture them by their size and scope. You have the big, fat layer of the main plot on top, then different layers underneath of different thicknesses and flavors. All this creates a very rich cake. If life were just one sole “plot” (“I gotta get that college degree”), it would be boring and so would you.

And so are novels that only have one plot layer. Life is complex. It’s messy. We’re told to complicate our characters’ lives. Well, this is the best way to do it—by introducing many layers of plot, and not just for your protagonist but for your secondary characters as well.

 Vary the Intensity of Each Layer

If you can create three layers at least, think of them as plots A, B, and C. You know your A plot—it’s the main one driving your story. But now you need B and C. You want B to be an important layer that will help the main plot along—either something that enhances Plot A or runs headlong into conflict with it.

Plot C will be thinner and more trivial, and may even add that comic relief in your tension (picture your character trying to get the paint guy with myopia to see the obvious difference between the two unmatching paint swatches). Believe it or not, Plot C can serve the purpose of revealing a lot of emotion and character (ever thrown a hissy fit at a store when you’re having a bad day over something else?).

Take this a step further and imagine one of your secondary, supportive characters in your novel dealing with an issue that juxtaposes with your protagonist’s issues. What if Ann, your hero, is fighting infertility, and at her peak of despair at being unable to conceive, her best friend Joan not only learns she’s accidentally gotten pregnant—she’s going in for an abortion. Can you see how this plot layer can add depth to your story by providing a place to reveal more of your protagonist’s needs, fears, and personality?

In my mystery A Thin Film of Lies, I needed a big revision, I decided to make a secondary character my protagonist. Fran is a bit sketchy in the original story; you know a little about her life, personality, and tastes. She’s a homicide detective investigating the hit-and-run that frames my story.

But now I needed to bring her to the forefront. Not only did I deepen her involvement with the main plot and increase the number of her scenes, I added an ongoing, growing tension with her teenage son that exposed issues of trust and believability—elements that are key themes of my main plot. Fran doesn’t really believe in her perp’s claims of innocence, nor does she believe her son’s when he insists he didn’t hack the school’s computer.

In the midst of all this, she hates the LA heat, has terrible asthma, so my Plot C is the aggravating element of her air conditioner at home always going on the fritz—which compounds and exacerbates the tension and “heat” in her house and family life.

Play with your themes; think of ways you can create these plot layers, and then find places in your novel, or create new scenes, where you can add these in. If you do, you will end up with a delicious, irresistible story readers will love to dig into.

Layer Your Novel explains in depth how to create a strong subplot and shows you the key scenes you will need to create to make the structure work. A subplot has all the same turning points as your main plot, so take the time to study up!

This week, take a look at your plot and if you don’t have any B or C layers, think of one of each that will complement your main plot. find places in which to bring these out, or create some new scenes to play out the new plot layers. Share how this helped deepen the heart of your story.

Featured Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

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  1. Great article. Delving into our own lives can he helpful when developing a fictional plot. “Life is complex. Life is messy.” How true. Readers will relate to a complex, messy plot. I would only caution authors to make sure all the layers have relevant consequences within the main story. Using your cake analogy, the various flavors need to be blended together and balanced to make it palatable.

  2. Thank you for this. It is just what I needed to sort out problems in my new novel. It did have a very thin feel to it and now I can see what I have to do to build up the layers to give it depth.

  3. Great post. I’m currently looking at one of my already published books because I think I can make it better. (It’s the first book I wrote and I’ve learned a lot since then, especially from posts like this one.)

  4. I Love a well plotted novel. Is it necessary? No. Many scream here, chains clank and the sunlight is withdrawn from the dungeon. The rusted moons of prison chains are shattered by the sun…sometimes the writing is all that matters, the concept. Hermann Hesse (go find the plot) and JP Satre won Nobel Prizes. Show me the plot in Peter Camenzind or Iron in the soul?
    Bringing it up to date, Iain M Banks playing with language and style in Excession, His alter ego Ian Banks “The Wasp Factory” Only sad writers such as I need all the idioms and axioms and styles that have gone before us. Perhaps rather than reading this advice (esteemed as it is) we should go out and read something new and different.

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