Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 22, 2011

Writing Exercise: Adding Plot Layers

Have you ever notice how everything seems to happen at once?  Thus the reason these sayings ended up being clichés.  Good things come in threes.  When it rains it pours.  That is why layers give novels the lush texture of real life.  Building them into your story is extra work, but the reward is a rich resonance and complexity.

Here is a writing exercise you can try to help to add layers to your plot.

Step 1:  Write down the name of your protagonist.

Step 2:  Write down the overall problem your protagonist must solve?

Step 3:  Write down the additional problems your protagonist can face.  Not complications to the main problem, but altogether different problems.

A plot is layer when more than one thing is happening simultaneously to the hero.  He has a murder to solve, and at the same time his father is dying of cancer.  Why not add a further layer?  He is searching for the soul of Mozart’s piano concerti.  What is it that gives them their power, their drive?  He has to know, so along the way he achieves that insight, too.  Thus, there are levels of problem to utilize:  Public problems, personal problems, and secondary problems.  Small mysteries, nagging questions, dangling threats – those also can be woven into the plot.

Step 4: For each plot layer or at least two that you have added, work out at least four steps or scenes that you will need to bring this narrative line to it climax and resolution.  Make notes for these additional steps ands scenes.

Weave Plot Layers Together

Donald Maass uses this exercise in his novel-writing workshops:

Step 1:  On a single sheet of paper, make three columns.

First column list your novel’s characters.

In the middle column, list the principle narrative line:  main problem, extra plot layers, subplots, minor narrative threads, questions to be answered in the story.

In the third column, list the novel’s principle places – major settings.

Step 2:  With circles and lines, connect a character, a narrative line, and a place.  Keep drawing lines ans circles at random, making connections.  See what develops.  When a random connection suddenly makes sense, make notes.

If you have a plot exercise you would like to share, please send it to me.  I’ll make sure you get credit for it.

Talk tomorrow,


PS:  Joe Monti – Agent at Barry Goldblatt is joining us at the Princeton Dinner on September 8th.  Please Note:  The July 6th dinner in NYC comes with $10 parking.


  1. Hmmm…that exercise offered by Maass sounds interesting…hmmmm…


  2. This is particularly helpful to me today as I struggle to figure out a new WIP. Thanks!


    • I know I’m always trying to figure out which method will ultimately work best for me and the way my brain works (or doesn’t lol), so I always love helpful info like this, too 🙂


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