Working In Layers On Your Novel

Cakes have layers. So does Photoshop. That’s how I did the picture above – with layers. The top layer is the black and white layer, the second layer lying underneath is the color layer. Use the eraser tool to reveal the color underneath, and look what you get! (although there is more to it than that to get my end result here, that’s the basic idea)

I write the same way. Thanks to an inspiring post from Liana Brooks, I have been thinking about layers a lot these days. What is the best way to write? I ask myself. And more importantly, what is the best way to edit?Β Liana’s post is really helpful. I highly recommend it if you’re looking at good ways to edit. For this post I am going to focus on layering your writing.

What Is Layering?

Think of it like the photo above. You have one picture on top of the other. When you combine the two and add a little creativity, you can get something wonderful and beautiful – and more importantly, interesting and unique.

It’s kind of like your body, too. Underneath everything is the skeleton. Add muscle tissue, skin, and then all the fine details that make the person interesting and unique on the outside.

Why Should You Layer?

If you’re anything like me, it’s kind of hard to keep everything straight in your story. First there’s the basic plot. Then other plots going here and there that tie into that basic plot. Then characters and setting and internal conflict and research and grammar and symbolism and word length and sentence structure and tone and voice and on and on!

Take a deep breath.

Wouldn’t it be easier to start simple? That’s how I do it. Start with the first picture – the skeleton. Build on that. Layer by layer. Worry about one thing at a time. Focus on what matters at the moment with the knowledge that the other important things are coming up later. Planned and waiting.

Now doesn’t that sound easier?

How Should You Layer?

I think there are many ways to layer your writing. Here’s what works for me:

(1) Summarize your book in one sentence. If you can’t do this, you don’t know what your story is about. Trust me. I’ve learned this the hard way. I learned this from the Snowflake Outline method, which is very helpful, even if you only use bits and pieces of it.

(2) Write a basic outline. People do this differently, as well. I start by doing a very brief outline, then moving on to a summary of each chapter. Flesh out your characters as well as you can by thinking about them, giving them flaws and strengths, writing about them outside of the story, etc.

(3) Write your story. Just do it! Finish it. Write it the best you can. Add whatever you can. But don’t stress about the little things like small plot holes, character inconsistencies, even grammar and polishing. These are for later layers.

(4) Start Layering. This is different for everybody. My first layers are polishing up the plot holes and character inconsistencies. Things that bugged me the whole way through the first draft that I kept telling myself I’d go back and fix later. My later layers are the fine tuning and beautifying. I like to write with a literary slant. This is where I start adding more symbolism, tweaking word choices, altering dialogue and details, etc.

(5) I’m making this sound simple for a reason. Because it should be. I used to write by going back through every chapter as I wrote it. I would edit as I went, concerned that if what I had written wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t continue. I never got anywhere. So glad I’ve moved on from there! I think that’s why I am writing this post – for any of you that might be stuck in the same rut.

(6) Don’t Work Alone! Liana has a great point about layered writing/editing:


The worst thing to do here is think that layered editing will make it possible for you to edit in a vacuum. I’m sorry, but it won’t. Everything you write will make sense to you (or it should). That doesn’t mean it will make sense to your readers.


I agree. I can’t stress enough the importance of getting your work out there for others to read. Join a writing group if you can. Although I have slowly learned that I cannot cater to my readers, I also cannot write without their opinions and advice. It’s a fine balance, that’s for sure.

Wrapping Up

If you stop to notice things around you, so many things have layers. Music. Food. Plants. Buildings. Scents. And apparently (thanks PJ for mentioning this in the comments, because I was thinking it, too, ogres have layers!) It’s a natural way to form things. It works for writing, too. At least for me!

See The Reading & Critiquing In Layers post for more info.

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

37 comments

Renee Collins

Very interesting post! I definitely love to have layers in my story. I guess my only problem is that I try to make some of them as I write. It often leads to going back and writing new scenes before I can move on with the plot. That makes it a bit slow going. But, I think, in the end, putting those layers in first will make the rest of the story richer because you will have that in your mind as you write.

I never thought of editing as layered, but it’s an interesting analogy. (In my case, layers of typos and plot holes, usually.) I suppose I start with a main plot, say, my hero and heroine. Next, I add in the subplots of my supporting cast. As I edit and refine, I add thematic details and also strive to braid the story lines of the protaganists and supporting cast more closely together.

Nice post! I hadn’t really thought of layering before, but I do work in layers. Actually, very similar to the layering steps you wrote here. The only thing I do is work out all the plot holes when I outline. For me outlining is pretty much writing the story, just not in so many words. Of course, scenes and ideas change, somehow acquiring a mind of their own in the process of the actual writing. Sometimes I fear that I have huge gaping plot holes I just don’t see because the story makes sense to me. That’s where the final step comes in I suppose… :p

Davin Malasarn

I work in the exact same way you just described. I just never thought of it as layering. I thought of it as my brain not being able to do everything at once. Your terminology makes me feel a lot better. It was hard for me to learn, but it does save a lot of time to get the big revisions done in the first layer and then worry about smaller things in later layers. Sometimes I feel bad because I end up ignoring many reviewers’ comments because they end up revising on a layer I’m not at yet. For example, their punctuation corrections, although useful later, don’t help me right away if an entire scene or chapter later gets deleted. But, I think it is the easiest way to approach such a big project.

This is really fascinating stuff; lots of thoughts quite new to me – and all extremely useful. I shall come back and have a more leisurely read. Much gratitude for the post.

Lady Glamis, thanks for this great post and for the link to Liana Brooks. I do need to work on my “layering” too, but as you well know I still need to finish my first draft πŸ˜€

Excellent post, I am going to print it out. I need to think about this while I’m editing.I also really need to learn o do that in photoshop!

Onions have layers. And Ogres have layers. Do you ever watch Shrek :)I write all the way through and then go back and make very liberal changes. And, though I outline, I totally leave room for the story to move while doing do.Very cool post!

Awesome advice. Writing the first draft is so hard, because I always want to go back and add something. This whole writing by hand thing has prevented me from doing that. Not only is there no room to write in extra things, I can’t find them in the pages. So I started a “Notes” notebook and have been writing down the things I need to go back and layer in on the second pass. Which will be when I’m typing up the first draft. Thanks!

K, so I don’t write books like all of your other readers, BUT, I do want to say THANKS! for the post because I always wondered how people did the black and white pictures and still had the color in them!!! :)I need photoshop…

Great post! The summarize your work in one sentence suggestion is golden. I struggled with that for a long time. My novel has three primary characters, and the story is very nuanced, spanning past lives and the present. Finding the root of the plot and conflicts/motives took some deep thought!

First, that is a beautiful picture. I love photoshop. I definitely buy into the layering thing. The novel I am writing at the moment is my first, and I really started to get hung up on going back an editing as I wrote. Then I read a post…it was either on Liana’s site or on Snark’s. It talked about laying down the tracks then going back and editing what you have (critiques, rewriting, etc.). Essentially, layering. This gave me so much hope. Right now I have only one layer, but after I go through all of the steps that you have kindly written out for us, I will have a beautiful picture (hopefully). πŸ˜‰ Beautiful post…made my day! PS…Isn’t amazing how much you can learn about life in the process of creating art?

Glass Dragon

I can’t say much here since I only write as a hobby when the mood strikes me, but layering seems to be my instinctual way of writing. I start out with that summarizing sentence and go from there. Being all unprofessional, I edit as I go. I can’t stand to let those plot holes and inconsistencies lie. It’s the OCD in me. I get mired down in the details, which is probably why I’ve never finished a story of any great length. I have a new idea that’s been nagging at me. Maybe I should try out your layering method on it! :)Also, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say something here about onions, ogres, and parfaits, even though PJ already beat me to it. Gotta be true to myself! πŸ˜‰

Lovely picture, btw. πŸ™‚

Onions! Onions have layers…

I’ll do a rough draft, go through and edit for basic things- cutting repetition, spelling, basic grammar. And then let my beta- readers attack.That’s where I find out what’s missing and find out more about the book because they ask questions which force me to have answers. Yes, the answers are made up, but it’s fiction! Making it up is the entire point.Then I do another draft adding in the answers, changing DL, and generally cleaning until the book is streamlined and well-paced.

Layers, baby! I don’t know how else you’d do it. Don’t want to throw ya, but I was a little confused by the numbering at first. :-0 Hehe!Love those pictures, btw. Cakes have layers too.

Lois: Thank you for pointing that out. I’m a dork and didn’t look over the numbers. They were all wrong. People probably thought I was trying to say something profound. No, just an oversight. It’s fixed now. Thanks!

Captain Hook

My response was too long, Glam, so I wrote a post on my blog πŸ™‚

Justus M. Bowman

“Although I have slowly learned that I cannot cater to my readers, I also cannot write without their opinions and advice.” This is very true.

Oooh, I hope that all writers get the blessing of reading your blog here! As well as a fountain of talent for writing novels, you have a fantastic was of presenting writing-related material that is consumable by newbie and experienced alike. Thank you for always sharing!I agree with the layering method, though I recognize it works well for me because I’m very organizational-centric. *ahem* Okay, organized-obsessed. You know fan websites with character summaries, section synopsis, plot guides, spin-off work, and related links? I pretty much can build one of those before I get to step 3 of writing the story down. Of course, by the time I hit step 4 with layering, the characters change, the plot shifts, and the whole things becomes somewhat organic in a cycle of steps 2, 3, and 4. In the end, it is a pleasure and a joy to live the story, and even write a part of it down.

Oh…wow…I don’t work that way at ALL.I don’t know the end of the book until I write it.I get an idea–sometimes an image, sometimes I type of character, usually a situation/problem/conflict. Then I mull it over. I might think about it for months. Or I might think of it once, forget it, and remember it months later…but in a fuller form.When I’ve thought about it long enough to know the idea isn’t going away, I write. The story/characters, etc. come from that.Sometimes I get in a problem I can’t solve in my writing. Back to thinking. This has resulted in books being dropped for months…sometimes forever.Usually I think myself out of the problem…and the book is written!

Very interesting post! I have to agree w/ Davin. I supposed the way I write is sort of layering, but I never thought of it that way.As I mentioned on Cap. Hook’s blog, I start with character and build from there. You definitely have been thinking about layering now and how I can use it to improve my novels.

Renee:Your systems sounds good, too. In the end it is what works for us individually. I think you can do layers within layers. Sounds like it would work!Tara:I love the word “braid” that you use. Wow. That is a perfect way to put it! Threads and braids and weaving. That makes so much sense!Kat:I work out major plot holes, just not small ones or I’d be doing that forever. So skipping them works well for me.I agree with you on the actual writing process and how things change. That ALWAYS happens to me. That’s how the plot holes happen, I think. The disconnects between my outlines and the actual story being written. Davin:Yes, I love the way you put it about having people reading an early layer. I think if we maybe explain to our readers that this is what we are doing, they might understand more. I had a feeling we worked the same. :)Dave:I hope if you find something that works well for you that you’ll me know!Marty:One layer at a time. One step at a time. You are in one of the best layers of writing! Enjoy!Alexa:If you ever need help in photoshop, I’m your girl! Hope the layering ends up working for you.PJ:I knew somebody would mention Shrek! One of my favorite scenes in the movie!I agree. Outlining needs to be loose so that during the actual writing you can work with the plot as it takes a life of its own. Elana:Sounds like the Levenger notebooks would work well for you!Writing by hand. Wow. I wish I could do that. I just love my keyboard and my 85 wpm speed. :)Mandy:Yep, it’s a little more difficult than what I explained all in all, but it is great! I love photoshop.Rick:I agree. My second novel, Monarch, has three main characters. But on the whole it is only one person’s story. It is hard to summarize the whole plot and gist of the story in one sentence under 15 words, but if you can do it, you’re really getting somewhere, I think.Litgirl:Yes, it is amazing how you can learn about life while creating. I agree.Yes, the whole layers thing has been explored by others. I am happy that you have discovered it and that it works for you!Becca:I am so happy when you are true to yourself. It always makes me smile!Meghan:Yup. And parfait.Liana:Yes. Made up. I love fiction!Sarah:Okay. I’ll have to go check it out!Justus:Glad you agree. Have you ever tried to cater to your readers? Just wondering if you have an experience to share.Alicia:Wow! You really are super organized! I wish I was a bit more!Beth:Your system sounds very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Not sure I could do that… I used to and it didn’t get me anywhere! It was fun, but not fruitful for me. I’m jealous you can make it work!Crimey:Character is SOOO important, I agree. They also have layers. *wink* Gotta love layers!

Solvang Sherrie

I love Photoshop — I use it every single day! The photo is beautiful and so is your post. And yes, delving into the layers makes the writing (and the reading) so much better.

I loved your post. I’m actually going to re-read it and take notes! God bless!

Excellent post Lady! No worries about the board, i completely understand, life at the moment is so hectic with eveything going on

scott g.f. bailey

I like this idea of layers. Certainly I think in terms of foreground, background and middleground, which are sort of the same things (background is setting and theme, middleground is plot, foreground is character and language). I also think about the story as if it was a three-dimensional machine built of handmade parts I’ve carved and put together. When I first begin a project, I tend to think of the story as a map to somewhere, or a flowchart even. All of these visualization techniques help me, and they all are different takes on the same basic idea: know the story. If I don’t know the story, I can’t tell it.Lovely post, as always. Thanks!

Kate Karyus Quinn

I like this whole idea of layers. This is definitely something I think I do, without having exactly thought of it this way. Right now between number 3 and 4 I am just trying to keep straight in my head all the holes that I know need filling, and I’m sure as I read and revise more will reveal themselves.

What a fantastic post. You really put so much effort into helping us, and I love your visuals for making your point. As I’ve only been writing seriously for a couple of years, I’m still learning the craft as I’m revising my work. The layering for me comes in the constant revision, plus in memoir, I need a balance between action and reflection. I’m also dealing with feedback from critique groups, and although if there’s a general consensus, it’s very useful, it can also be difficult to “please,” people.

Sherrie:Do you use Photoshop for your job? It really is a great tool!T. Anne:Hope it is helpful to you. Wow. Notes. Just be sure to make it work for you. It’s all very flexible. So glad to see you here on my blog! Emily:The problem is that I don’t know when it will slow down. I just want to move to a desert island, I think. With internet access, of course. Wait…Scott:I love the examples you use. Those are beautiful ways of looking at story! Kate:Good luck! It’s nice to be able to name something, I think. I was happy to name my process and identify it as layers. Really helps.Sonia:Ah, pleasing people… it’s important, but in the end, you must stick to your own voice. I’m sure you know that. It’s just a tough balance that I’m trying to learn at the moment.

I’m editing my first draft at this moment, and you’ve REALLY helped me with this post!! THank you!!!!

Pen Pen:So glad I could help. If you need anything specific concerning my routine with layers, let me know. There’s lots more than I’ve laid out here. If you run into problems or anything. Good luck!

Lady Glamis – ironically, I write in a very similar way. I consider the writing process as the creation of the human body . . . at least in some sense. I consider the rough draft the skeleton. Each subsequent draft via the editing process is where I add the muscles, the organs, the skin, and the whatever until the novel is totally fleshed (sorry, couldn’t resist) out. So, in a way, I do the layering as well.Thanks for the post.S

Scott:That is great! I agree, it’s just like building something beautiful and complex – like a body. Loved your little slip there, LOL!

Margo Berendsen

I found this post via Erica and Christy – beautiful! The photoshopped photo is a perfect example and loved the last part where you point out that music, food, so many things! have layers. I am still on the first basic layer, and I just now finally found my one-sentence summary (okay that was a little late in coming) but it's all fixable wih the upcoming layers.

Michelle Davidson Argyle

Margo: It's lovely to see you here! Thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your layering! It all falls into place eventually. πŸ™‚

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