Drafting in Layers

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigNevada 2014

I had a question on Twitter last weekend from mystery writer K.B. Owen.  She was interested in finding out more about how I draft a story in layers.

The layering of my drafts started out as an almost procrastination.  There are parts of stories that I’m not as fond of writing as others.   I especially dislike writing descriptions of characters and settings and found that I’d put off working on my book sometimes because I didn’t want to write it. As a work-around, I decided that I would add all description in a separate draft and in one “layer” as I was working on my second draft.

After using this technique for a while, I found it was very helpful for a variety of different things.  For one, it helped me weave my subplots through the main plot in a more thoughtful way.

Those are now the two main things that I leave out until the end–descriptions and subplots.  But you could use this technique with nearly anything that trips you up in your story….maybe an area you need to research more.  Maybe you’re not great at writing fight scenes or love scenes and that’s keeping you from moving forward with your story.   It a very adaptable approach.

To me, this is a tool for pushing through a draft faster and taking a more organized, thoughtful approach to other elements in your story.


I compose descriptions for all the characters and settings, etc. on a separate document.  I’ve found that I’m more thoughtful when I do it this way, use better diction, and…an added benefit…once I’m in the groove, I can not only work through all the description quicker, it’s better and more practiced and smoother.

When I add a layer of description,  I run no risk of repeating myself  because all of the descriptive elements are right there on the same page.  If I keep using the same adjectives, it’s going to be glaringly obvious.

I’ve found it’s quicker if I can mark my first draft, as I’m writing it, with spots that need additional description.  There are a couple of different ways to do this.  You can either make a comment in Track Changes in Word or you can assign a particular symbol to indicate the location for more description.  You’ll want to make sure it’s something unique (skip the dollar sign, maybe).  Then you just hit Control-F and look for the symbol when you’re ready to input your description.


For subplots, I open a separate document and write what’s basically a short story with its own little arcs of plot or character development.  Bonus points if I can tie in the subplot to the main plot in surprising ways (or even help my sleuth solve the mystery with something going on in the subplot).

The subplot is cut up in a series of installments…I think of it as a short serial.

Because I can see the subplot all in one place, the subplot is especially coherent and non-repetitive.

Then I weave the subplot into the completed first draft.  I look for areas where there are good places to include a subplot…maybe a slowly paced spot or a spot in the first draft that needs a bit of transition help. This process also helps with the pacing of the subplot itself.

Hope this helps and gives you ideas on how you might be able to use layering in your own writing.  Do you use a similar approach?

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Image: MorgueFile: kburggraf1

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31 thoughts on “Drafting in Layers

  1. This is interesting. While I don’t find writing description especially tedious or time consuming – probably because I don’t do a lot of it – I’ve struggled with the romance (ahem!) scenes and I always write them separately and then weave them in. I just didn’t have a name for it.

    I’m intrigued by the thought of using layering for subplots. Since I write in series, there’s been a running chain of subplots through my work that sometimes get neglected until a later book than they should or that just don’t get the full treatment they should. I appreciate the idea and I’m going to give it a shot. Thanks!

  2. I like that idea of drafting in layers, Elizabeth. One of the advantages is that it allows the author to keep everything consistent and cohesive. And if you draft the book that way, then the reader has a richer experience. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Just like a goofy groupie, I hang on your every word when you talk about how to write. I learn from you so I give myself the okay to be a groupie. :)

    I will try the layering. I think description of setting is something I enjoy, description of people without making it super obvious not so much. I think layering might help me on that stalled 20000 word YA book I’ve been working on for years (two). Like a good short story writer, I’ve got a solid beginning, middle and end. What? I need description?

  4. Thanks for responding to my question so promptly, Elizabeth! This is really helpful. I’m working on my first draft of book #5, and found that I was gravitating toward following the thread of the main plot and making notations to myself as to where to put subplot stuff in later. Sometimes I know a certain conversation is needed, but I haven’t figured out the nuts and bolts of it yet. Now I know I’ve been doing the writing in layers!

    I love how methodically you approach the process. That’s something I want to try!

    As far as descriptions, I use OneNote to write setting descriptions and character profiles, including physical features. When I’m ready to use a physical tag or write a more in-depth description, I open up that page in OneNote. We don’t want to have a bald character suddenly running his hands through his hair in the middle of the novel! (Not that this has happened to me…*whistles innocently*).

    By the way, would you mind manually adding me to your email list? I tried yesterday, but still didn’t get a notification of today’s post.


    1. Kathy–It really *does* feel natural to me to work this way, which is why it works so well for me…glad to hear it’s working so well for you, too!

      I like your idea of using One Note for descriptions. For the shear ease of being able to locate documents, I prefer One Note to Evernote.

      Just added you to the email list. Thanks for letting me know!

  5. Such an interesting concept-both intuitive and surprising. I think I’ve incorporated writing in layers without really recognizing It; just trying to get the direction of subplot A out of my head. Thanks for sharing! Now that I see it as a tool it’ll be much more efficient.

    1. Jen–It’s funny how natural it is to work that way…and then, when we apply a bit more purpose to the approach (writing out a subplot on a different doc, etc.) it becomes an even better tool. Thanks for coming by!

  6. Sup plots are tricky and I’ve avoided using them too much. More so from lack of experience writing and integrating them. I do have elements of sub plots though to keep things interesting. I’m working on more refined and defined sub plots though for my next series.

    Stephen Tremp

    1. Stephen–They can be, but if you start out really, really simple, they can be an effective tool. Simple could mean just adding an extra bit of stress to our (hapless) protagonist. Most often, they focus on a relationship of some sort (romantic, friendship, work-related, etc.) between two of the story’s characters.

      Two excellent resources for writing subplots that I’ve read quite a few times are this post from Writer’s Digest and this one from Cracking Yarns.

  7. Great ideas Elizabeth. I often leave a group of **** to mark areas where I need to return, with a comment of what is lacking…often “Needs more description.” Haha. I can see how doing a bunch of description at once, either character or setting, would be more efficient. Almost like getting out brain in a groove, using the same thought processes. I’m going to try this. Thanks again. :)

  8. Hi Elizabeth – your blogpost title remained with me … and I started relating it to history and re the blog tour I’ve been writing … where I’ve learned different snippets about different eras … always adding to the structural base I know about … that structural base has to be 3D … so today’s thoughts relate back to the Industrial Revolution, or the travel of ancient peoples … relates to what was available to them at that stage .. eg: seas and rivers, then overseas exploring other lands, then the development of carriages etc .. and so on to tracks, turnpikes, canals, railways, roads and ultimately planes – thankfully I don’t need to mention space (for now) – except in science fiction!

    That layering always fills out the puzzle … Cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–I’ve never thought of that before, but you’re so right–what you’re doing with your posts is historical layering. You’re hitting all the significant elements and layering in them in to inform/entertain the reader. And you do it so well!

  9. Great post, Elizabeth. I love the idea of layering. I’ve been doing it recently, not actually knowing what to call it. Description is my downfall and I’m always missing it. My alpha readers always tell me “you need MORE.” So after they read, I go back in and do the whole taste, touch, smell layer.

    1. Anne–I hear that some, too. :) I think it also depends on what we’re writing. My editors for the Memphis BBQ series and the Southern Quilting series were absolutely right to push me to include more food and texture description, since those series had food and quilting as hooks. For my Myrtle Clover series, I include somewhat less. So far I haven’t been dinged by readers in my reviews. :)

  10. I definitely do that as well. I haven’t really thought about it before, I just made it part of my process. I am always adding character and scene description when I go back for revisions. If I notice that they are missing on a scene review or read-through, I just mark them with // and a note about what I want to add later. Ditto if I find something that conflicts or I add a plot twist that will need to be woven into the earlier scenes of the book. And after my first draft, I always write ‘extra’ scenes. Backstory, epilogues, scenes which were only alluded to in the original draft, etc. Then after the manuscript has seasoned, I see whether the extra scenes should be included as part of the story. If not, I just leave them in a separate folder for my own enjoyment!

  11. Yes, description — when you’re in the white heat of the story, descriptions are hard to write because the characters are not thinking about descriptions, they’re just directly seeing it.

    I tend to use layers for juggling characters and their outward and inward reactions. (I wrote a blog post about it a long long time ago. Let’s see… here it is: http://daringnovelist.blogspot.com/2011/08/layering-in-story.html ). In short: With multiple characters, I will often make a pass for each character, making sure the reactions (or lack thereof) are right. And in any mystery killers and witnesses and suspects are all hiding things. But the point of view character doesn’t know it. So often to make it less complicated, I’ll write the first draft of the scene as if the character is being honest — just get the information out there. Then I’ll do another pass, with whatever they are hiding in mind.

    1. Camille–An excellent explanation of why I hate it so much! I can totally see that.

      I like having a white and dark version/conversation of/with your suspects. :) That could make things a lot easier when mystery writers are trying to track who knows what when, for instance.

  12. I like that. I usually leave description out when I’m writing fast (It isn’t my favorite either) I like the idea of a separate description doc. Hmm, I have one, sort of when I storymake, but haven’t been using it that way.
    The subplot sep doc will be a help as I have a nagging Grim the Editor in my mind telling me I’m missing something in a subplot.
    I like calling them layers, not drafts. :)
    merrie day

  13. Why, heck, I thought I thought of that! It works for me, too. Most of what I do is editing, and every once in a while I make up a story. Don’t read my first draft. You wouldn’t like my first draft . . .

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