Take Time to Build the Layers

This morning saw the end of more than fifty hours of low, thick fog surrounding my house.  By noon, the last traces of it disappeared, revealing a cold, gray sky.

Weather forecasters said layers of snow created the fog.  And the lack of any trace of sunlight for three days kept it in place.

That first day, the view from my windows revealed less and less of the woods and homes around here.  I’ve got to tell you it was an eerie feeling to watch that dense blanket of white creep closer, like scrims dropping from the back of the stage to the front.  Until all the actors disappear, their existence evident only through the stirring of their passage across the boards.

This unseasonable fog reminded me of the importance of layers in writing.  Each one reveals or conceals a thin slice of information about the character, the place, or the plot.  Once they are all in place, you’ve given your story shape and movement.

Maybe you’re wondering how fog can help with your writing.  Let’s take a look at three ways to use layering.


Walking out to the mailbox on the side of the road, I deliberately experienced the fog with every sense.

It was surprisingly cold that first day, yet most of the snow around my house had disappeared.  I hadn’t realized fog could rise when there was so little moisture in the air.  It trailed across my exposed cheeks like damp spider webs.  A trace of wood smoke from someone’s fireplace laced the air.  The moisture of the fog muted the aroma of a skunk that wanders the neighborhood.  I could almost taste the dense veil that shifted around me as I walked down the driveway.  Visibility was so low I couldn’t make out the neighbor’s mailbox down the road.  I strained my eyes to see my house.  As I walked back up the driveway, I thought I heard a muffled voice call to me.  Then I realized it belonged to an unseen mockingbird mimicking the whistle of a distant train.

Each sense described in the above paragraph created a clearer picture of the scene.  Readers fall deeper into your narrative when you employ as many senses as possible.


Revealing everything about a character in one jumbled mess of info dump cheats your reader out of discovering his or her personality and quirks in the natural flow of the story.

Instead of making the physical description of the heroine into a laundry list, show who she is by her actions, through what she says and how she says it.  Reveal how she relates to people around her.  How does she handle a crisis?  Does she support her friends?  Is she a loner?  Create a three-dimensional character your readers would instantly recognize if they met her on the street.  Make her relatable by giving her experiences your readers have had.

Which way would you prefer to discover who a character?

Peggy Sue had her mother’s blond hair and her father’s height.  She met her best friend in second grade.  It would have been first grade, except she had been in the hospital after a heart replacement that entire year.  Once she recovered, she enjoyed sports and cheerleading.  She was unanimously elected Prom Queen after she saved a puppy from drowning.  But her track record in relationships is dismal.

When she woke this morning. . .


Peggy Sue woke to discover she’d managed to wrap her braided hair around her neck so tightly she couldn’t roll over without cutting off her breath.

That was it.  Today was the day she cut the blonde mess short.  Her mother would be devastated.  But she didn’t have to untangle it after every shampoo.  And her mother certainly didn’t wake up dreaming she was being strangled by someone she couldn’t see.

If she was going to tick off her mother today, maybe she might as well go whole hog and tell her father she didn’t want the bed from her old room.  Last night he’d called to say he planned to deliver it this afternoon so she wouldn’t have to buy yet another piece of new furniture for her new house.  It would be wonderful to sleep on something more comfortable, and higher off the ground than her trusty air mattress.  But she had no desire to curl her five foot nine inches onto the twin bed of her youth.  He would surely understand.  She’d never known her six-foot dad to sleep on anything less than a king-sized bed.

If her parents would only realize she was no longer the sickly child they’d worried over so many years ago.  She didn’t know how to tell them she felt smothered by their constant attention.  They would be hurt, but. . .


The first night of the fog, I had a long, crazy dream.

I was in a waiting room somewhere when I realized my purse was missing.  At first, I thought someone had moved it.  I looked for a long time.  Under chairs, behind a sofa, in the closet, on shelves.  It wasn’t in that room.  But I was sure I had it when I arrived.

I spent more time looking for the purse, asking everyone who came and went if they had seen it.  By then I had a sick realization that I didn’t  know what it looked like.  After what felt like hours, I recalled that it had a keypad, similar to a home security system on the back side of the purse.  Even knowing what it looked like didn’t help me because none of the dozens of bags in that room resembled what I remembered in any way.

Then I realized I wouldn’t be able to get a taxi to return home because my cash was in the purse.  Again hours seemed to pass as I attempted to find a way home that wouldn’t involve miles of walking.

It only slowly dawned on me that my credit card, driver’s license, car and house keys were in my missing purse.  My first thought was about the time and trouble it would be to replace them.  Then I hoped I could get my credit card canceled before someone found my purse and went shopping.

Only after I had found my way home and approached my front door did the terrifying thought hit me.  Whoever had my purse had my address and my keys.  What if I entered the house and . . .

When I woke the next morning, I remembered every layer of suspense added to that dream.  I still felt the horrible realization that someone waited on the other side of the door for me.  And I knew I needed to write about using layers to craft your story.

Can you peel apart the layers of your story?  Does each layer build the character, setting, or emotion you want?  Do you need more layers?  Try this on your WIP and leave a comment to share what you discover about where adding layers of atmosphere, character development, and plot takes your story.