Four Writing Tips, Part 4

by Leo X. Robertson

Links to Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

Writing Tip 3/4: Build a Story in Layers

(This is Part 4 but we’re still on Tip 3, because it’s a longer one!)

Last time I explained how to build a story from the ground up, iterating in layers of detail. Here is a little more about the process:

The story should form itself in the following approximate order, where your focus is drawn from lowest-order (to the left) to highest-order work (to the right)

  1. Idea > 2. Plot/setting/characterization > 3. Sequence of scenes > 4. Sentences and words > 5. Prose prettiness

This is a rough order. The development of a story doesn’t transition perfectly from one end to the other. Sometimes you get a good piece of dialogue before you know what the person who says it looks like, or why they’re saying it. Sometimes you know where and how a story will end before you know why.

“Idea” is the most nebulous stage, when you just have a potential story seed, with no notion of what it will look like in the end. The idea will make a plot outline, with locations and characters, and these will turn into a sequence of scenes, which will be rendered using sentences and words. Finally, those sentences will have their structures cleaned up and those words will get replaced by the best combinations you can think of.

Between steps 4 and 5, there will be sentences in my draft like “[Pretty description of how cold it is outside]” and “[He does something to convey that this has irritated him (e.g. neck scratch.)]”

I know the purpose of each sentence before I have the sentences themselves. This is still substructure, but higher-order substructure than before.

For me, specific details take a lot of mental energy to think of. There’s no point in thinking about them before you’re sure they’ll be part of a scene. If the pretty descriptions come first, it gets harder to “kill your darlings.” You might fall in love with a description of someone who shouldn’t be part of the story anymore, so you fail to cut them out.

This process is more like falling in love with the story, more than falling in love with the characters.

Characters are invented people embedded in the story, and who serve the story. If you fall in love with a character, you might become simply unable to picture her without green nail polish, silver jewelry, or reading one of her biographies about Elizabethan England. Later, once the story’s direction reveals itself more to you, she might have to be impossible to pick out of a crowd. Given where the detective is standing—he’s searching for her—her distinctive nail polish would easily distinguish her. What are you going to do: insist that she keep the nail polish because you can’t picture her without it? That means the detective finds her straight away and we lose the whole third act where she, having outrun him for additional months, makes him track her down at the abandoned candyfloss factory. She reveals that she didn’t kill her uncle; aliens did. That’s obviously brilliant, so, green nail polish must go.

Love the story more than the characters. (Or you know what? You don’t even have to think of it like falling in love at all. I never found that very helpful. In fact, we’re both completely free to disagree about any of this and still produce good writing.)

Even though this method requires typing a lot of words that won’t be part of your final story, it’s also the most efficient way of getting to the end. Do you want to type whole scenes in vivid detail and then cut them completely? That sounds painful and unnecessary, and the above is my way of avoiding that feeling.

I leave prose prettiness until the end, and often forgo it entirely. My own style seems to relate to objectively strange ideas. These require a clarity of language for me to successfully convey them to someone I don’t know. This blog post is probably indicative of that “style”, though I used to think this type of writing indicated a lack of style, or something underdeveloped. The truth is, I enjoy reading stories by authors who are confident that their ideas are enough, without the need for belletristic embellishment. Such as the use of phrases like “belletristic embellishment.”

Next time I will give you my absolute favorite tip, which is a joy to apply and has resulted in the biggest improvement of my writing so far!


About the Author

Leo X. Robertson is a Scottish process engineer and writer, currently living in Stavanger, Norway. He has work published by or forthcoming with Flame Tree Press, Pulp Literature, Helios Quarterly and others. His latest novella, “Jesus of Scumburg”, is out now with NihilismRevised. Find him on Twitter @Leoxwrite or check out his website,