There is something to be said for having everything happen at once.
Often we think of the climax of a book as the place where everything
comes together and starts happening at the same time. However, we
shouldn't necessarily restrict ourselves to the climax; layering can be
beneficial at other points in a story as well.
I mention this because of my own experience. I had a sequence of events
in my recently completed novel as follows: the protagonist had to go to a political event;
thereafter my bodyguard character had to follow a nefarious character to
prevent an assassination; thereafter my bodyguard had to come home and
find a conflict going on between the master and mistress. It wasn't bad,
but when it came to dramatizing the whole thing, I found it was
dragging. I was struggling to get the protagonist out of previous plot
points and over to the political event. I was daunted when I tried to
imagine all the details of the political event. Then I couldn't figure
out how to make the opening of the prevent-an-assassination sequence
different from all the previous interactions between servants that I'd
been working with (I try to make every interaction unique).
Over this weekend I realized what the problem was. Everything was strung
out, all the events coming one after another like beads on a chain.
That simultaneously put too much importance on each individual event,
and made me work too hard to keep them connected.
I therefore decided that as many things as possible needed to happen at the same time.
I can get away with this in my novel, because it's supposed to be
complex. It is certainly possible to overload a scene with too much
stuff. However, if you can find a way to concatenate instead of
stringing, the result can be amazing. In the case of the sequence I
describe above, I decided that the political event and the assassination
attempt had to happen at the same time. This accomplished several
useful things for me.
1. Because the assassination attempt had to occur in a specified
location, I suddenly had a place to put my political event that was more
effective than the white-room-ish space I'd been fighting against
2. Because the new sequence placed both my protagonist and my bodyguard
in the same location, it allowed me to do a direct point-of-view handoff
(I love those).
3. Because I could do the point-of-view handoff, I could shift to the
bodyguard's perspective early in the political event, thereby making it
unnecessary for me to elaborate on all the details of the event. In
fact, the ceremonial details of what's going on are much less important
than the bodyguard's attempt to foil the assassination. Layering allows
me to place focus on the more important element and stick the less
important element in the background.
4. Suspense went through the roof. Instead of having the bodyguard out
attempting to stop an assassination on his own terms, he's right in the
middle of a public event trying to figure out how to save the target
from the assassin without having any means to reach the assassin (who is
hundreds of feet away) or the target (who is at least fifteen feet
5. Consequences also became much more dire. The bodyguard won't be able
to take action without hundreds of people seeing him, and this will
result in entanglements that delay his return home, providing a perfect
reason for him not to be where he needs to be when the conflict between
master and mistress begins.
It's worth keeping an eye out for opportunities to do this. Especially
if you are being told by critiquers that your story is wandering, that
the pace is slow, or that it's one thing after another after another,
consider whether layering might be the right answer.
You might also want to look out for this if you're trying to figure out
how to shorten a work. What if you feel like you've taken out as many
words as you can and the book is still "too long"? Maybe you're aiming
for 90-100K words but you're stuck at 127K. Usually at that point it's
the structure of the story which has to change - and if you can
take a step back from your outline and create clusters of events that
can either closely follow one another, or happen concurrently, then the
layering effect will save you a lot of words that can't be "pulled out"
any other way.
It's something to think about.