Every good story is, at its heart, a conflict, and your job as the writer is to throw as many obstacles and conflict in front of your character as you can as they strive to achieve their overall story goal.
But, you can deepen those conflicts and make them even that much more interesting by layering your plot.
So…what is a plot layer?
A plot layer is another plot line given to the main character in addition to the main plot. It’s when more than one thing at a time is happening to them.
If you think about your own life, you can probably identify myriad plot layers. There’s the “plot” of your family, going to school, events/drama with friends, and possibly a romantic plot layer. All of these “plots” have their own set of conflicts and drama, but they all intertwine because they’re all your life.
Your main character’s life is no different. If you’re writing a murder mystery, there is more to the main character’s life than solving the mystery. Your job is to figure out what elements raise the stakes for your character in her life and then tie those into your story.
Examples of Plot Layers
Writers who write timeless, compelling fiction tend to be somewhat sadistic when it comes to their main characters.
Layer after layer of obstacles follow trauma after trama, and as readers, we can’t get enough. We must find out what happens and how this character will figure it all out.
Think about classics like Romeo and Juliet. All Juliet wants is to be with her husband Romeo. Sounds like an easy enough goal, right? But there are all kinds of other issues, or plot layers, that she has to deal with. Shakespeare layered on issues with her parents, another man who loves her, and a husband who has his whole own set of issues with murder and banishment.
Each of these plot layers adds to the complications and conflicts of the main plot. They raise the stakes for Juliet.
Shakespeare laid it on! This is a great story!
And then there’s poor, beleaguered Katniss in The Hunger Games, and she’s possibly in worse shape then Juliet. Her one simple goal? Survive the games so she can continue protecting her family.
But, she’s got more problems than that. In plot layer #1 – her family’s starving, and she’s not legally allowed to hunt and feed them. In plot layer #2 – her father is dead and her mother is depressed, so she has no help taking care of everyone except for a boy she thinks she might love but she has to leave. The world is on her shoulders. Plot layer #3 is all about romance – who should she choose? Gayle or Peeta?
This is all pretty awful, but then, we have the main plot and people are trying to kill her. When we think it can’t get worse, it does. The president of the country decides he hates her. And then it gets even worse!
She’s got plot layers around her family, romance, and the government.
These are all conflicts that have nothing to do with surviving in the arena, but they give Katniss depth.
And as a reader, what do you do? You KEEP reading!!
Developing Plot Layers
So, how do you do this for your own story? You get mean!
Brainstorm all the different kinds of complications your character might face that aren’t related to their main conflict or goal.
- Childhood memories or issues to deal with?
- Any unsolved mysteries – murders? Crimes?
- Family secrets?
- Romantic problems? In love? Not in love? Wants to be in love? Unsure about their sexuality?
- Making friends? Fitting in?
- Enemies other than the main antagonist?
- Paranormal or psychic abilities?
- Addiction issues?
You don’t need to include every single issue you brainstorm, in fact, you probably shouldn’t. But you do want to add at least one to deepen your story and your character. To choose, look at those ideas that can also add complications and raise the stakes when it comes to your character’s overall story goal.
This is complicated work, so don’t feel bad if adding only one plot layer might feel challenging. It is.
But, as your story develops, you might find yourself adding in more layers without even thinking about it.
Maybe your character falls in love, but their love interest is also a murder suspect. Yep, that’s a plot layer.
In the comments below, share your favorite plot layer, either one you’ve come up with or one from your favorite story. Why did you love it? Maybe your ideas will help a fellow writer.