Thursday, August 27, 2009

Adding Depth to Your Writing Through Layering

Painters working in oils will often layer, painting the basic picture then adding colors and brush strokes to create shadow and light thus adding depth. This same method can add depth and texture to your writing.

The majority of submissions I read for Sotto Voce or through CROSSxCHECKING tell great stories. Unfortunately, that's often where it stops. The stories have no more depth than something a friend might relate over lunch or I might overhear while engaging in that favorite passtime of writers, eavesdropping. Good stories do more than simply relate what happened in chronological order, they pull us into the world the characters in that story inhabit.

This is where the layering comes in.

Let's say you have an idea for a semi-autobiographical piece about a mother dropping her daughter off at college for the first time. The story might start out with packing the car at dawn, then driving down the road where you write in both bits of conversation and poignant silences. The story ends at the parking lot outside to dorm or when the mother leaves her daughter behind for the first time.

So far so good. Some of those reading your story will be parents who share the experience and they will immediately identify, but if you want to hit the larger group, readers with young children or no children or the unmarried, you need to make that world real to them. You want them to feel like they are sitting in that car with the mother and daughter. You can do that by layering in detail.

Here's how it works. After your first rush of inspiration, put the story aside for a week or two. The next time you pick it up, think about some details you might add. I find it best to start broad and work down to the minutia. For example, the first thing you might consider is where the mother and daughter live and where the college is located. These can be real places or generic city/suburban/rural settings with an idea of the distance between the two locations. It will make a difference to your readers whether the college is nearby allowing the daughter to visit often or so far she can't even make it home for Thanksgiving. It will also make a difference if the place she is going is vastly different than the place she grew up, or if the young woman grew up in a middle class suburb where going to college was alway in her future, but the leaving is painful nonetheless.

Moving in a little closer, your next layer could be something like details about the weather. Is it a typical crisp fall day reminding the mother of her own first year at college or the day the daughter started kindergarten? Maybe the weather is unseasonably warm and muggy, allowing for contrasts. Maybe there's a sudden rainstorm that makes driving a challenge and almost causes an accident.

Your next layer could include sights and sounds. Does the scenery change along the way? Are the silences between the two characters filled with the sound of a blasting radio or traffic noises? Maybe the cracking of the daughter's gum gets on the mother's nerves or vice versa.

Moving along, it always helps to include external details that provide insights into the characters' personalities, like the kind of car the mother drives. Is it an expensive SUV or a clunker or something middle of the road like a Ford Focus? What items are packed in the back? Are they things like a TV, refrigerator, microwave, popcorn popper, skis? Or just a couple of suitcases? Is the car packed carefully or do items shift and tumble?

Finally, you'll want to finish with at least a few details about the characters themselves, not an info-dump describing each one from head to toe, but little distinguishing features like hair color or clothing, body type, etc.

Depending on what you want to convey with your story, you probably won't need to include all of these. It works more like a Chinese menu, picking one or two things from each category. You don't have to add your layering all at once either. Personally, I find it works better to continually put the story aside, then come back and add more detail each time––kind of like letting the paint dry on the canvas before adding more. You also need to know when to stop. Unlike the 19th century, readers today don't want every detail of a room from the color of the walls to the curve of the sconces over the fireplace. A few telling descriptions are all that's needed.

Layering can make the objects of a painting jump off the canvas. It can also make your words jump off the page.


Lady Glamis said...

This is an excellent post. I do a lot of layering in my work, but usually chapter by chapter. This is why I write so slow, why I take so long to finish a novel, because I'm constantly going back and adding more.

I did a post about layering awhile ago. I didn't narrow it down to adding details, but I love how you've done this! Thank you for some great direction. My layers post is here:

Writing In Layers

Rebecca Nazar said...

I enjoy Anne Tyler for her layering. To my mind, she makes the mundane sparkle.

Nannette Croce said...

Lady, I will check out your post, and I wouldn't rule it out as being somewhere lost in the back of my mind when I thought up this one.



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