Thursday, August 25, 2011

Layering In A Story

Here's the thing about writing: Not only is every writer different, but every story is different.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that you shouldn't dismiss anybody's method of writing... because no matter how wrong that method may be for what you're writing now, someday a story will come along where that method is the exact thing you need to make it work.

One technique which has often done wonderful things for me is something I call "layering." It's related to what some people call editing passes -- when you write a rough draft and then "make a pass for language" or "make a pass for dialog." That's more of a stylistic thing. Most of us do that sometimes, but what I'm talking about digs down a little deeper. It's not something you will use for an entire book.

It's also not the same as rewriting -- in that you write the way a painter paints. You don't do you best guess for the first draft and then "fix" is on other drafts, but rather you lay down an incomplete foundation with the plan of putting other layers over it.

This isn't something that's good for every scene. It's best for complex scenes which bog you down as you try to juggle too many elements. Multiple characters, maybe some subtext, subplots -- and lies. Mysteries, of course, can be full of scenes in which people are lying, but neither the point of view character nor the audience knows it.

Two examples of how I've used layering:

In Have Gun, Will Play, Mick has some tricky conversations in Chapter 2. It's the aftermath of a suspicious situation, and Mick wants to know what's going on. The town authorities want to know who the heck he is. Suspicion and wariness all around. So I already had to juggle: 1.) the practical level of information they all want from each other, 2.) clues and lies and 3.) personal motivations.

But there was a fourth element which was a little too much to juggle: Mick's wife Casey, the firebrand sharpshooter. She doesn't say much (she prefers to let her guns do the talkin') but she's very much a presence. She lurks, and Mick is always very aware of her.

I knew she wasn't going to say anything in this scene, and the two men they're talking to were going to ignore her anyway because she's a woman. But she was going to be there, glaring, and Mick is always aware of her and every subtle shift of weight she makes. Juggling his hyper-awareness with the task at hand was a little too much for me.

I had trouble writing that scene, until I just let Casey go completely invisible. It was almost like I took her out of it completely. I let Mick do his job of talking, and standing up to the two men who were trying to question him while he tried to question them.

Then after I'd nailed down the scene, I went back and added in Casey. You'd think that wouldn't work. After all, Casey has a big influence on Mick and what he says and does, even if she does it silently. If I nailed down the conversation without her, and added her later, she'd be just standing there, right? Well, no. I found that by nailing down the "front conflict" of Mick vs. these other two guys, I was able to concentrate on Casey and Mick on the second pass, and by golly it really worked on a root level.

I think one of the reasons this worked is because of the nature of the problem: Casey is a wild thing and wants to be invisible a lot of the time. But more importantly, it shows us a lot about Mick. He may seem dumb and distractable, but here we need to see he's not as dumb as he seems. We need to see that he can stay on task, and that keeping tabs on Casey is old hat to him.

Since I learned this trick of what I call "character passes" I use it a lot in scenes where there are multiple characters. I'll let some of the characters just walk through their lines, while I nail down the emotional texture of the most important players. Then I'll do passes for other characters.

The other example is an interesting contrast to this:

In the current work-in-progress, I find myself doing multiple passes for the same character. In a mystery, some witnesses lie. Sometimes you don't want to raise too much suspicion about the lies ahead of time -- because the main character will figure it out later. At the same time you don't want to cheat the audience. The witness has to behave in a way consistent with the truth. And there have to be clues.

So, say my detective is questioning someone who has something to hide, something which isn't just a simple lie, but something with an emotional component they don't want to reveal. Usually you can juggle that in a single pass, but sometimes you can get bogged down trying to deal with the various layers of deception -- especially if the liar is a minor character.

What I'm finding is, though, that if I get bogged down -- especially with a minor character who lies -- it helps to write the scene first as if they are not lying at all. Just write the surface. The detective asks questions, the character answers.

THEN I write a second pass for the lie. I go through the scene, keeping in mind how the character wants to mislead the detective. (This is often what I call a "rational" pass too -- where I massage any clues to things that will come.)

And depending on how the second pass went, I make a third pass for the emotion. Would this character really be so convincingly cold blooded about this lie? When it's a major character, this usually is dealt with in the first pass -- but when it's a minor character, and we haven't seen a lot of character development, it's sometimes necessary to actually stop and think about it just for this scene.

None of these passes are clean. There will be emotion and deception in the first pass -- after all, I do know the character is lying. I just find that when there is a really important subtext, especially if it is emotional, it can help sometimes to deal with it on its own.

I find that as I get older, and better at what I'm doing, I do this more and more. This may be because I understand the structure and purpose of a scene on a more instinctual level now. I don't know if this is something to recommend to novices...

But it sure feels like it would be at least a great exercise -- like those exercises where you write the scene three times in a different point of view. Only in this case, you would write it first on the surface level, and then add deeper layers as you go.

Next week I'm going to talk about what a "masterpiece" really is, and how achieving mastery isn't something you aspire to do at the height of your career, but at the beginning of it. In the meantime, I hope to get set up for the next writing dare in this weekend's week-in-review.

See you in the funny papers.


a said...

This has given me some great food for thought, Camille. Thanks!

ModWitch said...

Oooh. Character passes! What an awesome idea. I have two really sticky scenes in my current WIP - lots of bodies, and they're both really pivotal. Gonna try this... I don't "rewrite" hardly at all, but this idea of intentionally layering, that I think could really work for me. Glad I dropped by tonight...

The Daring Novelist said...

You know, when I think about this, I wonder if this comes from my (thin but memorable) training in playwrighting, as well as the time in screenwriting. It's kind of an "actory" thing to do.

Anyway, Azarimba: glad to get you thinking. ;-)

And Modwitch -- good luck with the sticky scenes!