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The first draft of your novel: build layers of storytelling

The best novels are packed with dialogue, scene, action, interiority and world building in every scene. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be lucky to get two layers of storytelling into any new scene in your first draft.

Three years with my MA writing group have taught me that this is very common. Almost every week, we ask each for more of one layer or another. Even as our individual writing styles have been honed, we’re still doing it when we submit new chapters. It’s only when one us gets to the alpha or beta reading stage that we can see how our critiques have changed the first draft.

That’s because your first draft isn’t really a first draft: it’s a first pass. Your end goal is to create a seamless narrative experience, one that engrosses your readers without them being aware of your layers and edits.

I suspect that it’s the same for every writer. Over time, every one of us develops checklists and techniques to turn a first pass into nuanced layers of dialogue, scene, action, interiority and world building.

You can’t write all the layers of storytelling at once

Every art form has a process. It’s usually dictated by the form: painters draw lines before colours, sculptors create a crude shape before they chisel out the features. The one thing we all have in common is the sketch or outline we’re working from (unless you’re a die-hard pantser). Writers, at least, can choose where we start.

I don’t know if it gets easier with experience. Maybe Ishiguro writes an entire, complete scene the first time. I’m sure that Will Self will tell you that his every textual ejaculation is perfection.

This is why I work through layers of storytelling. My basic brain can’t do the characters’ dialogue at the same time as laying down the beats of an action scene. I often know where one should appear when I’m writing the other. (TIP: leave yourself an ALL CAPS note in the text or a comment in Word or Scrivener.)

Dialogue and interiority often go together well, a character’s speech requiring an insight into their thoughts, and vice-versa.

World-building sometimes combines well with scene, adding sights and sounds that set your environment apart in the reader’s mind. The background, history and laws of a world can be harder to deliver. In both cases, however, your first pass splurges out in descriptive paragraphs or historical notes.

Every scene starts on its own layer of storytelling

Some scenes start out as dialogue where you barely see the physical characters beyond their speech tags; others are all action with barely a word spoken. You might sit down to write, bursting with scenic description and world building that has to get onto the page before you populate it.

This isn’t a problem, because the layers of storytelling complement one another. Speech tags become actions that indicate the character speaking along with mood and body language. “Said” isn’t dead, but less is definitely more.

World building transforms for the better, from pure description it’s expressed through the mouths of your characters, gaining the context of their viewpoint, it can be attached to an object as mundane as a can of soda, or it can emerge organically from your characters interacting with the environment. Just don’t expect it to happen all at once.

Read your work to find the next story layer

Unless you’re blazing through a Nanowrimo month, it’s good practice to start every writing session by reading through the scene you wrote last time. Change your perspective from the screen you’re used to: print it, read it out loud, or just read it on a tablet or phone.

The missing layers of storytelling will usually become apparent as you read. You’ll also pick up other weaknesses like the typos you don’t even notice when you’re writing.

Over time, you’ll start to feel which layer you’re in while you’re writing, and sense what’s missing from the scene. Relax and complete that pass; when you get to the end, you can go back straight away, or leave yourself notes for your next session.

I find that scenes live in my head while I write them. Elements of the next layer arrive as I go to sleep, when I wake up, or in the middle of the night. Keep a notebook handy. It can result in sleepless nights, but it’s one of the joys of writing, to know that my brain has engaged its creative gears and my unconscious is working hard to supply my conscious mind.

Writing story layers isn’t editing, it’s revising

Editing is a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of many writers, particularly new writers who dream of a perfect first draft that won’t require the drudgery of careful editing.

The bad news is that perfect first drafts are as rare as unicorns. The good news is that you’re not editing yet: you’re breaking down the creative joy of a first draft into something that will make editing easier.

At this stage, you’re progressively building a scene or chapter through iterative revisions. Your goal is a good first draft. If you discover that your revisions affect a scene you’ve already written, make a note and go back later. It’s all part of the process.

For me, editing is when you go back to the completed first draft (or a good chunk of it). At this stage, you’ve got a plan to make structural changes or rework scenes and chapters. By the time you come to this kind of edit, you’ll have a lot of notes and ideas to work on.

Full disclosure: I’m one of those annoying writers who enjoys editing. It’s a different kind of creativity, where the entire novel begins to live inside my mind. I can think about the macro effects that changing a line of dialogue could have on the whole story. Along the way, typos are fixed, plot holes are stumbled upon and non sequiturs become apparent. Then you add more.

Editing is not revising, nor is it proof reading. That’s a final stage which is best done by professional proof readers, with software like Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid, and regular expression searches in Scrivener.

Let your fellow writers find your missing layers of storytelling

After all these revisions, you probably think you’ve constructed a rich scene. You might be a good way there, but now it’s time for your fellow writers to tell you what’s missing.

Those of us with limited budgets rely on other writers to point out the things we can’t see. Wealthier scribes can hire an editor (who can also do big picture stuff that a writing group might not be able to see from a few chapters).

Maybe you’ve layered the opening section perfectly, but you ran out of energy later on. Maybe you can’t see where your character motivations are obscure, or the dialogue isn’t sparkling. Don’t worry, your fellow writers will point the way, and you’ll do the same for them.

It can feel like a chore to go through several marked up copies and transfer the comments into your master copy. All the same, it’s worth doing regularly. I try to check workshop comments before I’ve revised a scene so much that they’re no longer relevant. Inevitably, I find insightful comments which didn’t emerge during the group session.

Now you know which layers are missing, it’s time back to revising your work. Each round will take you closer to a perfect draft. Then it’s just alpha readers, beta readers and you’ll be ready to publish.

I’ve reached the final stage with my debut, Blood River, and I’m not far behind with by second, The Awakening of William 47.

What about you? Do you use story layers to build up your scenes? What techniques have you found to integrate dialogue, scene, action, interiority and world building into a seamless narrative?

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