Layering is like that children’s hand game: rock, paper, scissors. Paper wraps rock, rock smashes scissor, scissors cut paper. Something always beats out something else.
In art, there is a similar trilogy: watercolors, acrylics, and oil paint. As long as the artist sticks to one medium, it’s possible to pile layer upon layer of watercolors on watercolors; acrylics on acrylics; or oils on oils with beautiful results.
Mixed media is where the fun begins. Apply paint in the wrong order and it’s a disaster. Watercolors can be used under both acrylics and oil paint, but not over either one. Oil paint can be applied over acrylics, but not under them.
This past weekend, as I alternately read an art book about what paint layers to apply when and another writer’s first chapter, I realized there is a lot of similarities between layering on canvas and writing.
At the start of every story, we face the problem of what layer to put down first? The most common mistake is to cram in too much information, too many layers, at the beginning.
In Galaxy Quest, Jason Nesmith is remarkably calm about being abducted by aliens. He assumes this is just another group of costumed fans, who happened to have built a terrific movie set. All he wants to know is, “Are there pages or do you want me to wing it?” meaning, is there a script he’s to work from or should he be prepared to improvise? Whichever it is, he’s prepared to roll with it.
Just like Jason knew fandom; mystery readers know the mystery world. All they need is a little orientation to roll with the story. The old journalism saw of who, what, when, where, and why is as good a place as any to start the story.
What is the protagonist’s name?
What is the first, most important detail that the reader needs to know about how the protagonist views the world?
What is his or her relationship to everyone else mentioned in the first chapter and their relationship to the protagonist in return? This is the best reason I know to limit the number of people in first chapters. If there is the protagonist and one other character, there are two relationships to contend with. The protagonist and two other characters, six relationships. The protagonist and three other characters, twelve relationships. You get my drift.
I’m not talking lots of back story here. Relationships can be identified quickly. “It had been months since he felt comfortable being in the same room as Grace. From the way she always sat as far away from him as she could, she was of the same opinion.” But try to do that for twelve relationships in one chapter and we have a problem.
When?When are we?
Sometimes naming the seasons is helpful. It was really important to know at the beginning of Game of Thrones that winter was coming. In Red Wind, Raymond Chandler wrote that gorgeous paragraph about the hot, dry Santa Anas winds.
If the story takes place in a well known city, what expectations do readers bring to a story set in Los Angeles, London, or Lima, Peru? How can we play with those expectations?
Many writers never name their local. It’s simply a big city, a small town, a hard-scrabble ranch on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Wherever it is, the reader need to be allowed to settle into that place in the first chapter.
What and Why are closely related
Why is the day the story starts different from every other day in the protagonist’s life?
What will happen today that’s the first step on a one-way journey to story’s end?
How does the protagonist feel about what’s going on?
What is the absolute minimum amount of information that will set the story’s context without degenerating into back story or flash backs?
A man walks into his office. His receptionist says a woman is waiting to see him. He turns around and recognizes his wife, whom he thought died five years ago. She’s had plastic surgery, but he recognizes her anyway. He takes her into his office and closes the door. The first words out of her mouth are, “I want my daughter.”
Bam, the reader is right there with them, in that room. This is not the time for side trips. The reader doesn’t need to know that they were married sixteen years; that the marriage was mostly happy; that they have one daughter, fourteen, who is away at school; that he started his business with the money from his wife’s life insurance policy; or that he’s just bought an engagement ring and planned to propose over the weekend.
What the reader wants more than anything else is to stay in the room with those two people and watch how they interact, what they say to one another, how they make it through this terribly bizarre situation. The other layers can come later.
Quote for the week (just in case you’ve never read Chander)
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.
~Raymond Chandler, Red Wind