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How Layers Can Deepen Your Story’s Impact

Kathryn Craft returns today with a guest post to kick off her blog book tour for her new release, The Far End of Happy (available May 5th). You can read Elle's review of Kathryn's excellent book here.

Many of us, when first drafting a story, see it as if a film is unreeling in our minds. The words we apply to the page are our way of translating what we see and hear for the reader. This is a great place to start, and can, in the right authorial hands, result in a wild ride for the reader. Readers love a wild ride! But once the ride comes to a stop, the experience is often all but forgotten. We authors wish the memory of our work could linger so our efforts won’t be forgotten.

Rather than tinker with wording alone on your next several passes, here are some questions you can ask yourself about your story that can deepen its impact.

1. What is this story really about?

The essence of my novel The Far End of Happy is expressed in its logline: “Three women must make impossible choices and reveal shameful secrets while awaiting word about a loved one’s suicide standoff.” But delving into what a story is really about requires looking at the big picture. Is your book about 'seeking truth', 'unconditional love', or (like mine) 'hope'? For my protagonist, Ronnie, hope depends on the ability to dream of a brighter future. Reassess each scene to see how it can support or counter this premise. The cohesion this creates will help your story resonate longer.

2. How does your cast of characters suggest your story’s potential energy?

Assess the usefulness of each of your major characters by clarifying what they want, how their backstory motivates them to want it, and, most importantly, how each offers a different perspective on the story premise. Ronnie’s mother, for instance, believes her daughter is the one capable of creating the love she still hopes for. Ronnie’s mother-in-law has sustained hope by appeasing her son. These differences put the characters into organic conflict over the premise in a way that complicates Ronnie’s attainment of her goal while giving the reader a lot to chew on.

3. If your characters were stripped from this novel, how could the setting alone tell the tale?

This is a challenging question, but may result in ideas and images you can use to your advantage. The women wait out the standoff in a social hall they’ve been to before, back when it was decked out for baptisms, graduation parties, or funerals. Today it is stripped bare—“as if waiting to see what kind of event this will be”—and stands in for these women’s mounting anxiety.

4. If everything but else were stripped from this novel, how could action alone tell the tale?

My agency’s principal, Donald Maass, always bemoans the fact that the manuscripts he sees never contain enough action. This question was important for me, because what is a standoff but a lot of high-tension waiting? My answer was to create movement through media intrusion, the entrances and exits of secondary characters, police action, and backstory action that revealed each character’s objective.

5. Is there a symbol that could stand in for some of your exposition?

And if so, is there a way it could come back into the story again at the end in a way that signals character change? I have two, but—no spoilers.

6. Do you need all that dialogue?

Once you’ve taken these steps, some of your dialogue may be overly obvious, thanks to the enhanced support you are now receiving from your setting, your orchestrated set of characters, symbols, added action, and the way your premise is unifying each scene. Your story is now rich with subtext that will allow you to take the advice of author Melanie Bishop’s advice: “Let dialogue be like subtle arrows shot through your story.”

Thanks to Dani and the BRP team for having me back as I gear up for the release of my second novel! In the comments, I’d love to hear what makes a good read stick to your ribs.

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her novel based on true events, The Far End of Happy, releases on Tuesday (May 5). She is the author of The Art of Falling, also by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. Great to have you joining us today, Kathryn :-)

    I think I would struggle with Number 3, which probably suggests I rely too heavily on my characters to carry the story. The advice on dialogue, too - that is my biggest strength. Lots of food for thought here.

    1. I bet the author of fantasy novels does more with #3 than she realizes! Having setting elements or props that change over the course of a novel can be a fun thing to think about though.

      And thanks for the lovely review, Elle!

  2. For me, a book is all about the characters. If I don't love/care about them, I won't come back. I love good dialogue. Themes and symbolism are lost on me -- I had more than enough of that in Mr. Holtby's English classes. Action is easy for me. I want stuff to happen. I guess that's why I write a lot of action-adventure romantic suspense and mysteries.

    1. Of course you can write much faster than I can Terry, and have a great backlist, so when the reader is done you have another to slip into their hands! Mine have to linger in mind a bit longer or I will be forgotten. 😉

  3. Of all the thousands of books I have read, only a few have really stuck with me over the years. In the end, it is the character I carry around long after all the plot threads have vanished from memory. That said, the character's problem must have touched a cord too.

    1. Yes, me too, Diana. I probably won't love some of my favourite books as much were I to read them again now, but my memories of certain characters (and relationships) are still cherished. Belgarion and Silk from The Belgariad; Fitz and the Fool from The Farseer Trilogy; Edmund in Prince Caspian, but not in LWW...

  4. I agree Diana and Elle, and these techniques only help to support the characterization. Would be interesting to go back and analyze books with your favorite characters and see if any of these layers were at play on your subconscious!

  5. Most importantly, I must relate to at least one of the characters. That character need not be at all like me, but her situation must touch me in some profound way. What I relate to has changed significantly since the 50s when I was enamored with Nancy Drew and her exciting (to me) adventures. (I think I led a boring life by comparison and longed for something -- besides a big spider -- to get my adrenalin flowing.) In my own novels, the most memorable character so far is the gentle Yoshi in A Brother Betrayed, not so much because she lived in an abusive situation, but because she was estranged from her father, whom she had sadly misjudged. When I finally allowed her to blossom, she soared high above all my expectations.

    Realistic dialogue, often unique to the character, is another plus for me. (Clones turn me off, even if it's just in words choices, sentence structure, or peculiarities of speech.) Action is good, and some is necessary to hold my interest. However, I love head games and deep-seated motivations that drive characters. Settings are important, and I need to "see" where the characters are and the action takes place; but for me they are a backdrop.

    Finally, I want to finish a book with the feeling that what I just read could really happen. The story must reach a realistic conclusion (not necessarily a happy one) based on all that has occurred before. To leave me hanging leaves me seeking a different author to read.

    1. One more very important thing: Welcome home, Kathryn! I've missed you and am so glad you dropped by for a visit. May you have much success with your new book. I'll be buying a copy as soon as it comes out.

    2. Thanks Linda, and loved your comment here, as always! And it's amazing what we can believe "really happens" when a story strikes a chord in us, isn't it?

  6. Welcome back for a visit, Kathryn. I loved #3 and your mention of the logline makes me think I need to write a separate post just about that.

  7. Sounds like an interesting book, and a beautiful cover.
    I placed the' blood red pencil' link up on my blog post among other links.

    You made some interesting points. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Wow, you pack so much great, related craft advice in a short space! I too find layering important in my work, but you've given me some new ways to think about it. I love the Melanie Bishop quote: “Let dialogue be like subtle arrows shot through your story.” That reminds me of screenwriting, which asks the writer to only use dialogue when nothing else will get across what you want to convey.

    BTW, I too find your book cover beautiful, Kathryn!


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