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  • Writer's picturetrevorcarterva .

The Many Layers of a Story

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Any good story contains many different layers. This is how I view good fiction, anyway. The following layers, in my opinion, are what make a good story.

Layer I:

The top layer contains the words: dialogue and exposition. On his layer, the reader gets information about the characters, setting, and other aesthetic elements of the story. It's all about information.

Layer II:

The next layer contains the subtext—the underlying theme of a piece of writing. There are multiple ways to apply subtext in writing. Below is an example of using subtext through questions.

Joe whipped out a knife and threatened Thomas.

Thomas grinned and pulled a gun out from the back of his pants. "You sure you want to do this?"

Thomas counters Joe's threat with a grin and by drawing his gun. His question directly relates to him having a gun. What he's really asking is: "Do you think your knife can beat my gun?" You could write the same scene without Thomas saying a word. His smile and the gun are enough to convey the subtext.

Layer III:

This layer involves overlaying symbolism. In a sense, it is a type of subtext, but it differs in that the symbolism can go deeper and affect several other elements of the story. A symbol can relate to abstract ideas and concepts. It can connect a character to an event or other people.

For example, in the Harry Potter books, the scar on Harry's forehead, given to him by Voldemort, is a badge of honor. Even deeper than that, the lightning bolt represents power and energy. Harry was imbued with power when he received the scar. That scar (symbol) overshadows everything Harry does throughout the story.

Symbols affect us on an unconscious level, bringing up collective archetypal images that evoke different emotions and ideas. They can also be used to convey information about a character, a place, or an object in the story.

Layer IV:

This is the bottom layer and in my opinion the most important layer. It ties together the dialogue, exposition, subtext, and symbolism to penetrate deep into the reader's mind. It is the psychological layer. The words a writer uses, the way they construct their sentences, and how the way they use the other layers, contributes to the psychological impact the story has on a reader.

You can achieve the desired psychological response from the reader by using a combination of dialogue and exposition. But you can achieve the same results with good descriptive language. Some writers refer to this as, "show, don't tell."

Example of telling:

Maggie was so sad about losing Sam, her beloved Canine, that she cried off and on for several days.

Example of showing:

Maggie's eyes brimmed with tears. Her bottom lip quivered. For several days, she lay on her bed; her cheeks wet with sorrow. (Note that I did not use the word sad or cried. Maggie's actions tell the reader that's she sad and that she cried.)

The more depth your characters have, the more intense the psychological impact their words and actions have on the reader. As an avid reader of fiction, I like stories where I can connect with the characters on some level. I want the writer to give me a view of their psyche, the inner workings of their mind.

Here's an example of what I mean by giving a character depth.

Katie lay on the floor dead, having been shot by her ex-boyfriend, Steve.

Steve couldn't stand to see Katie with another man. In a jealous rage, he took her life.

We know Steve was jealous and that led him to kill Katie. But why did he resort to violence to resolve, what he perceived, his problem with Katie being someone else? What events happened in his past that led him to think that way?

If you're looking for ideas for a new story or feel stuck with your present work, check out my book, A Writer's Creative Workshop on Amazon.

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