The Plot Thickens

Today we're hosting editor and author C. S. Lakin on the importance of plotting in layers, and how these layers work together to enhance your character's struggles and challenges.

Creating plots and subplots is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love to think about how everything ties in together, adding to the whole. I know that many people struggle with plotting, especially creating meaningful subplots that add to the story. So read on and get C. S. Lakin's take on this critical part of any story or novel!


Novelists focus heavily on plot, and rightly they should. Your novel needs a well-crafted and believable plot. 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. 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 mismatched 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 a mystery I wrote that 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.


C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the seven-book fantasy series “The Gates of Heaven.” She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, including her Zondervan contest winner Someone to Blame. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach the craft of writing. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life: www.LiveWriteThrive.com and www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com. Come join in! You can read more about her and her books at www.cslakin.com.

Follow @cslakin and @livewritethrive. Facebook: C. S. Lakin, Author, Editor.

34 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

You had me at the picture of the cake. :D

Great post!

Laura Pauling said...

Great tips. I love thinking of plot in layers instead of subplots. And yes, the cake helps. :)

Christina Lee said...

*reaches out to get frosting on my fingertip--yum*

This was great and absolutely LIFE is made up of layers (oh yes)!

Brent Wescott said...

I think the problem with thinking about plot layers is that layers don't overlap. An intricate plot with subplots can overlap all the time, creating little distractions to the overall goal.

SA Larsenッ said...

This is a fantastic post, just oozing with plot point information. The image of that colorful, multi-layered cake is forever etched on my plotting brain, now. :)

Kelly Polark said...

Life is definitely made up of varying layers. Great post!

And I will be thinking about that cake all day long!

Ava Jae said...

Really fantastic tips! I'd never thought of plot in layers, but I definitely like the image of layers much better than subplots.

Julie Musil said...

What excellent advice! I love it when books are rich with multiple layers, like "The Help." So much going on there, with the main plot and several sub-plots. Thanks!

Matthew MacNish said...

Brilliant.

primadonna20 said...

I wouldn't want to detract from an excellent post, but that has to be the cutest cake I've ever seen. I'm making it!!

Beyond that, I feel like I have a pretty good collection of layers...it's the top one, the overarching goal, that is a muddled mess at the moment.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. What a fantastic writing lesson. Thanks, C.S. :-)

SP Sipal said...

Great post! And your series sounds fascinating.

Mirka Breen said...

Ah, those layers.
C. S Lakin knows of what she writes. Plotting may be my favorite part, and from the look of that cake, I could use all the baking help I can get.
Good post.

Jeigh said...

Great post! I am definitely going to take another look at my manuscript and identify each of the layers. Also, I've found that Sarah Dessen is very good at layering her plots and her characters.

Michael Horvath said...

Great info! as a new "writer" this is a great tip.

Jeanne said...

In literature about writing, plots are described so many different ways. As a food lover, 'layers' speak my language. Thanks for this!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great article! Comparing the subplots to the layers in your life really hit a cord with me. (Thanks!)

Melinda S. Collins said...

Awesome post!! I love the thought of adding layers to the plot vs. creating subplots. Excellent tips! Thank you!

*And the cake? I really, really want to be able to make that! :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

Plot layers are important ... and look delicious!

Wagging Tales

Louise Charles said...

Brilliant post which has helped me to get to grips with weaving in sub plots without them seeming so 'add on'. Thank you!

Traci Kenworth said...

Oh, that cake looks fantastic!! And the tips really make the filling sweet and tasty!!

Gwynneth White said...

What a refreshingly different approach for the learning impaired like me. I really get the concept. Thank you,

Ghenet Myrthil said...

I want that cake!

These are great tips. It's so true that life is full of layers so it makes sense to add layers to our characters' stories.

Carl Duzett said...

A valuable thing to remember is that the A, B and C plots aren't just three different plots stacked on top of each other. I think it's helpful if they at least relate thematically.

Your example of the pregnancy/abortion is a good one, I think.

Angela Ackerman said...

Very glad this post is helping so many. Sometimes it's easier to visualize a writing technique, isn't it? Especially with something so loaded with sugary goodness, lol.

Kristen Wixted said...

Rainbow layers in a cake!
Yes, please!
This is a complicated idea but so important to a good novel. I heard an author speak about it at a workshop once, when I was starting my first novel. It's a little overwhelming at the beginning but the main reason it takes so darn long to write a novel.
That's what I think, anyway! ;)

Becca Puglisi said...

Such a great post. Layers are incredibly important, though hard to get right. Thanks for shedding some light on this, CS!

Stacy Green said...

This is a great post. My WIP is loaded with layers, and I've been working on bringing them all together before I get too far into the plot. Thanks for the lesson:)

JC Piech said...

This is so useful. Sometimes its all too easy to get caught up in the main plot. But your advice on how to use subplots to reveal more about the main characters is brilliant. Thanks!

And like everyone else, I'm in love with that cake! :D

Kristi Bernard said...

This is a great way to look at plot. I am struggling with it in regards to my mg novel. Thanks for the insight.

katherineamabel said...

Great advice. I thinks it's so important to vary the intensity of each sub plot but it's the sort of thing which could easily be forgotten in the attempt to rack up the tension all the time. Thanks!

Jenna Rutland said...

Wonderful post. I like the idea of "layers." Never heard it described this way. Thanks for sharing.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Yes, I love all those subplot layers! But it's hard to weave all those important layers into the ever-looming synopsis. Then, I guess it helps to keep that main idea (or two) in the forefront. Good post!

Deb Marshall said...

Really like the idea of comparing the plotting and sub-plotting to life. I totally get it. Also...I love cake. Thanks!

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