Want to make your story deeper, more compelling? Layer it.
If you’re like me, you don’t want to struggle in your daily life. You want as few difficulties as possible. You don’t want to have issues or setbacks. You don’t want any great hassles. You want your life to go smoothly. But when you read fiction, you want your lead character—your protagonist—to have as many struggles as possible. You want her to overcome as many obstacles as the antagonist, and others, can throw at her.
In any story the protagonist has a main, overarching goal she has to achieve or obstacle she has to overcome. Whether it is to find true love, stop the killer before he strikes again, or discover the formula that saves the world, it drives the story. There wouldn’t be a story without the story problem. We’ll call it the “Plot Problem.” Think of it as the first layer.
Back to our daily lives. We may want them to be smooth and tranquil, with as few difficulties as possible. Yet who goes through life without issues? Don’t make enough money? Or owe too much? Going through a divorce? Are you saddled with a health problem? Have to take care of an aging parent, an ailing spouse, or a challenged child? Is your boss incredibly demanding, or your spouse, or your family? Did your house burn down? Have to find somewhere else to live, but can’t? These types of issues are the kind of “Life Problems” any of us might have to face. Your protagonist, like you, had a life before the story began. So she, too, will have Life Problems. Think of them as the second layer.
What aggravates you? What little, niggling thing always seems to go wrong? Do you have that one tire that always catches a nail? When you have to update your computer or cell phone—and you always do, demanding little pieces of junk—is it always messed up afterwards? Does that weed eater—which is so hard to string—always run out just before you’re finished? Is it your lane that’s always stopped, while the other lane moves free and clear? Does your cat always sharpen her claws on that brand new recliner, instead of the worn-out chair someone gave you in college? Does your washer and dryer team up to eat your socks? Or do they never fail to fade and discolor that new, expensive shirt or blouse, while gently preserving the tee shirts that have holes in them? These little bits of frustration—these minor curses that raise your blood pressure and make you gnash your teeth—we’ll call “Laundry Problems.” Think of them as the third layer.
Layering is stacking your protagonist’s problems, her Plot Problem, Life Problem, and Laundry Problem, to give her and your story more depth. These problem layers don’t have to happen at the same time—though they can. How can you make these problems worse? And even worse? And still worse? Can you raise expectations, only to drop the hammer? What are the solutions to the problems? What are the surprise solutions, the ones your reader—and maybe even your protagonist—would never expect?
To tighten your story, consider weaving the problems in with other elements. What character can add to one or two of these problems? Which character always seems to bring the problem with them? The antagonist will, of course. But what if a friend or family member were helping—accidentally or deliberately—to make the problem worse?
Where in your story—what setting—does one or two of these problems always pop up? Layer your story with the three types of problems. Force specific characters and settings to do double duty by accentuating or aggravating the problems and you’ll make your story more engaging and compelling for the reader.
One last word: Layers are NOT subplots. Layering is adding problems for your protagonist. Subplots are the problems and issues of other characters in your story, and deserve their own story arcs.