Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Art of Layering - Part 1


When we think of description, most writers think about simply describing a few elements for the reader during narration, such as a sound or whether it’s light or dark, but if you think of a story rather like an onion, you will see that it reveals many layers before it finally gets to the core.
Fiction – or description – is very similar in the way it operates. Descriptive writing entails a number of elements to make it stand out, and layering is just one of them.
The idea of layering within description is to show the reader there is more to just the surface of the story; that there is more information to glean from it – background, colours, noise, characters, atmosphere and so on.
Description brings the narrative to life for the reader. They have nothing to go on but the strength of a writer’s words and therefore the writer has to allow the reader to visualise the scenes that are taking place, to become part of it, and the best way to do that is to make the narrative multi-layered. In simple terms it is a way of ‘showing’ key elements, rather than ‘telling’.
For instance, peel away the top layer and you get background information. Peel another layer and you will get tension and atmosphere. Peel another and you will get deep emotion, empathy and immediacy. Another layer will reveal characterisation and more layers will reveal pace, action and so on.
The ability of the writer to layer these aspects – one on top of the other – is what gives stories and novels such depth, and what enables the reader to look beyond mere words. They are able to ‘read between the lines’ and become involved with the story.
Layering plays a vital role, particularly with important or significant scenes, because it allows the writer to expand beyond the surface and add many levels for the reader to discover and enjoy. It stops the writer falling foul of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’
To give you an example, I’ve borrowed an extract from my short story Driftwood (Ganglion Press), where the main character Stella, and her husband Douglas, are at sea aboard heir yacht, sailing around the Greek islands.
The squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, rolled a little.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
The scene is not that extraordinary. It doesn’t stand out and it doesn’t have any depth. There isn’t much for the reader to go on; it doesn’t yet engage.
But if I add another layer, perhaps hint at some colour, then the scene begins to change. I’ve highlighted the added text.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
It looks better, but it’s not yet complete. The characters are pivotal to the scene; therefore the scene needs to reflect this with some tension and atmosphere. Again, I’ve highlighted the additions.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
It’s starting to shape up now that it has some depth, and that’s because I’ve added a few more interesting layers. Now imagine the scene if I add sounds, which I’ve highlighted.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Something across the ocean rumbled. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them, rasping across the bow.
The yacht creaked, rolled a little.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
By adding a sound layer, I am giving the reader more to work with, more elements for them to imagine and therefore more pathways into this fictional world.
But the scene is still not layered enough. It needs more layers. This time I will add more characterisation.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
‘Foolish? No point turning back now, we might as well sail through it get out of it as soon as we can. Besides, the yacht is strong; she can face a moderate storm.’
‘Can she? How the hell would you know?’
With these extra layers in place I’ve enabled what would have been a particularly flat scene to come alive and enable the reader to visualise it, to become part of it. Now the scene is not just mere words.  It’s more than that.
And the one thing it doesn’t do is ‘tell.’
In part 2 we’ll look at some more examples of the layering technique that will help you avoid ‘telling’ and instead get you to ‘show’ more in your narrative.
Next week: The Art of Layering – Part 2

© Driftwood, by AJ Humpage 2011

3 comments:

  1. I hope in the next chapter you will consider using other's writing too as an example.

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    Replies
    1. I will indeed have examples of how other writers do it.

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