The simplest way to build a ‘flat’ story — one which primarily uses the mechanism of ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ to drive a story forward to some kind of conclusion — into a three-dimensional or rounded story is to use the principle of layers.
A ‘layer’ is, as you would expect from common usage and the dictionary, ‘a sheet, quantity, or thickness of material, typically one of several, covering a surface or body’.
If you have laid out a series of ‘Then this happened…’ events — say, a chase sequence with bad guys chasing good guys across a landscape, which is a common enough sequence in fiction — and you want to add layers to it to give it depth and resonance for editors and readers, here are a few things you could do:
1. Ask yourself about metaphors.
Is the chase sequence also about something else? The usual ‘bad guys chasing good guys’ series of events might thematically represent something other than its surface appearance. Perhaps the message is about growing up, or losing one's innocence, or perhaps there’s a religious significance there.
For example, C. S. Lewis’s famous children’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based around a simple chase-sequence plot. Most of the story is to do with the Pevensie children being pursued across Narnia by the White Witch, who is intent on killing them. They have a goal — they must get to a mysterious figure known as Aslan, in whom all their hope is invested, but apart from that, it’s all about running, escaping and hiding, which are well-used ‘Then this happened’ devices for giving a piece of fiction Momentum.
But Lewis’s story is also a metaphor — an extended metaphor, actually, which is crafted to be a Christian allegory.
Start by thinking about your simple linear tale — is it an allegory of something else?
2. Look at the setting.
Once you have established that there might be an allegorical or metaphorical meaning in the plot, take a look at the landscape through which the chase is happening. On one level, Lewis’s story takes place in a wintry wood, with all the pragmatic difficulties that that might bring — the cold, the frozen river, the trees, the need for supplies. But on a metaphorical level, the fact that the wood is frozen (‘Always winter and never Christmas! Can you imagine?’) means something; the fact that everything begins to rapidly thaw as the chase progresses is also laden with meaning. Then, to top of his use of setting, the fact that the whole landscape is impossibly set in a world on the other side of a wardrobe door reinforces that it may all have a hidden depth for the reader.
3. Look at your characters.
Most writers tend to think of ‘characters’ as quasi-people who leap at least partly formed from their imaginations and take to the story’s stage like actors. For a piece of fiction to become really memorable, it has to be realised that this is only an apparency: in fact, to live in the readers’ minds and to be remembered long after the book is closed, a character has to resonate in some way with the Seven Character Archetypes.
Much more is written about these in my books How Stories Really Work and 7 Secrets to Successful Stories, but briefly listed, here are the archetypes:
The Shadow Protagonist
The Submerged Companion
The Emerging Companion
The Comic Companion
The Wise Old Figure
Characters in any given story can shift between these ultimate figures, but every piece of successful fiction has elements of these archetypes — otherwise it wouldn’t be successful.
For instance, the Pevensie children in Lewis’s book are a mix of the Shadow Protagonist (the figure who makes similar but wrong choices compared to the protagonist, in this case Edmund), the Submerged Companion (who glimpses truth sometimes but is often caught up in fear, like Susan), the Protagonist (the central figure whose choices determine the course of the story and with whom readers’ attention is meant to stick, in this case Lucy) and the Emerging Companion (who steps from immaturity or fear or some past misdemeanour to take charge and become a leader, a role fulfilled by Peter in this story). We see traces of a Comic Companion both in the Beavers and Mr. Tumnus — their role is to assist the Protagonist in their quest. And of course Aslan has almost all of the features of the Wise Old Figure who knows what’s going on, can usually guide or offer remedies, and often appears to be dead for a while, only to reappear towards the end of the tale.
Your characters may initially appear to be nothing like these archetypes. But look more closely: what role do they play in the tale as a whole? Are they progressing towards the Antagonist end of the spectrum — because astute readers will probably have noticed that there is indeed a spectrum — or are they leaning more towards the Wise Old Figure?
Working this out can lift your story to a completely new level — or rather, make it seem much more ‘rounded’ and less flat to readers.
There’s another thing you can do along these lines too, but we’ll look at that next time.