building the story (or layering the onion)

I made a post on my Facebook page recently about how much fun it is to begin a novel with nothing more than a character’s name and face, then build a story around the character. My blogging friend, David Felker, commented that it was like peeling the layers of his client’s personalities away to get to their troubles, like layering an onion.

It was a great comment and it made me think about what I do as a writer. I layer the onion, but in reverse.

For me, my protagonist is the core of my story and all the layers of the tale build around this one person and the conflict he or she must overcome. For some folks, it’s the plot, but once you have the core of the novel, be it plot or character, the rest of the process is the same.

With the character as the core, planning the novel becomes a wonderful game of trying to figure out who this individual is and what goals he hopes to achieve. The core of my onion is my protagonist and the first layers revolve around his past and personality.

Next my protagonist must have an antagonist of some sort, so I apply the layers around my antagonist. What obstacles does my antagonist leave before my protagonist, and more importantly, why does my antagonist seek to thwart my protagonist? What ties them together? The past? The future? A common goal?

Then comes all the other characters who will have a part in my protagonist’s story, and they each bring layers of their own.

I work through my plot and sub-plots, each building a layer toward the skin, the ending, the piece that ties them all together.

What about you? What’s the core of your novel, the plot or your protagonist? How do you build the layers of your story?

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About T. Frohock

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8 Responses to building the story (or layering the onion)

  1. Kelly Bryson says:

    True. I think that is why we go through our stories so many times. We can’t get all of our character’s layers on the page in one or two passes. Good to think about!

    • I always try to look for points to develop in that first pass, Kelly. You’re absolutely right, it sometimes take two or more passes through the manuscript to embed all the layers.

  2. tikiman1962 says:

    Every story starts somewhere. And there is no right place to start. My dark comic transgressive fiction WEEKEND GETAWAYS, OR ADVENTURES IN CONTRACT KILLING started with the first line. I thought I knew where I was going with it and then it evolved and changed into something more ironic than I had intended.
    But it is always the feeling of that AHA moment when the story first presents itself that you try to hold onto while completing the task at hand.
    Great feeling, isn’t it?

  3. Jan O'Hara says:

    What a cute picture. He looks so nervous.

    I don’t have a system, really, which should come as no surprise. Sometimes it’s the specific character I get, sometimes it’s a snippet of dialogue in a voice that’s compelling, sometimes it’s a “what if?”, and I ask myself who are the kind of people who’d find themselves in that situation. Regardless, I really am starting to see how the first draft is pretty much for discovery, and the rest for layering.

    • I really am starting to see how the first draft is pretty much for discovery, and the rest for layering.

      That’s a good point, Jan. My first draft of An Autumn Tale gave me the core of the story, but it was the second draft where the layers started to develop.

  4. kat magendie says:

    Oh! so it’s like a pearl – starting with that tiny grain of sand and then building and building! 🙂

    Well, you know I write like that as well, the starting with a character and then the discoveries – thrilling!

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