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The Process of Writing Fiction: Layering versus Framing

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I have an MA in social science from the New School for Social Research in New York City and formally worked as a writing professor.

Ernest Hemingway writing in Kenya later in  life

Ernest Hemingway writing in Kenya later in life

Layering versus Framing

Layering (Pantsers)

Holistic Layering

In layering, some of the structuring the story is often done in situ, during the writing process. However, to some extent the author must have rudimentary structure: the plot and the dramatic arcs, at least loosely, even if it isn’t written down. They also need a rough idea of each scene before the writing of it begins An "ballpark" sense of it. Otherwise, the writer is merely brainstorming which can be done more simply.

The down side to the layering process is that the writer will do a significant amount of rewriting. This is why I call this methodology layering because the author will go over the manuscript many times and make many changes along the way.

Sectional or micro layering

It's not uncommon for writers to employ some framing during their writing process or before they begin. A writer might have a loose idea of what needs to take place and will create a bare bones outline of the entire book, chapters, scenes or even paragraphs.

Layerers: Jhumpa Lahiri, George R.R. Martin, Colleen Hoover.

Layering works well for: literature, memoirs. dystopian, romance.

Layering works well in terms of learning. Good way to learn writing and also editing with less pressure.

Author Colleen Hoover

Author Colleen Hoover

Or Framing (Plotters)

Holistic methodology

Framing is a set, chronological process that begins with an outline and a summary. Mostly, the chapters are written in concert with the outline. Each chapter and each scene will have an outline and it's possible that the author will have mapped out the entire story this way making the writing process more streamlined and efficient.

Sectional or micro framing

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Framing can be done for smaller units like scenes and chapters. If an author's chosen process is layering, the author could still employ the methodology for subsections.

Framers: Elizabeth George, James Patterson, Barbara Kingsolver.

Works well for: pop-fiction, biography, science fantasy.

Framing is a good way to learn plotting, or story structure.

Which one should I follow?

This is up to you and mostly relates to what comes to you naturally. You also don't have to use one or another and ideally, you'll create your own specific process and over time tweak it and become more comfortable with it.

Creating a hybrid process will include aspects of both methodologies. If an author uses holistic layering, they'll use this process for the entire novel. But an author might incorporate scaffolding in some way - and vice versa, a scaffolder may employ some use of layering on a sectional or micro level,

It’s not uncommon for a writer to alter their methodologies as they become more established and write professionally. Once a writer has achieved a high level of skill in writing and is prolific, story structure has changed the way that person organizes their ideas as they are envisioning them. And they see their story more precisely; the structure is organic to them.

Either works for most genres of fiction. If the fiction is highly commercial - strictly dependent on tropes and archetypes - the framing method is likely more practical because the material needs to incorporate specific aspects organic to pop fiction like tropes, plot points or character development, that the audience is accustomed to and expects from such writing. For example, plotting supports genres such as mystery, romance, erotica, westerns, suspense and certainly non-fiction..

All types of fiction can be the product of layering or framing though the developing writer may rely more on layering at first because the writer needs practice in how to plot and structure story. They may not be yet able to sit down and create a full outline and if they can construct one, it’s likely there will be some trial and error that will require they backtrack and revise the outline. Also, given plotting is a skill unto itself, one that must be practiced over and over, it would be cumbersome to write an entire novel for every outline the writer produces. It’s more efficient, at a the beginning of a writing career, to construct outlines that may be more loosely woven together to allow for changes during the process of writing. This isn’t always the case and some writers really need this structure to guide them.

Something to Keep in Mind

If the fiction is highly commercial - strictly dependent on tropes and archetypes, the framing method is likely more efficient because the material needs to incorporate specific aspects organic to pop fiction like tropes, plot points or character development that the audience is accustomed to and expects from such writing. For example, plotting supports genres such as mystery, romance, erotica, westerns, suspense and certainly non-fiction.

Commercial writers are not expected to demonstrate artistry through prose/text. There are examples of commercial novels that incorporate artistic language but generally, creating artistic prose requires far more consideration and editing than novels read for plot, ergo, commercial fiction. A good example of this is Dan Brown’s books. While the plotting in the Da Vinci Code is incredibly well structured and coordinate with a well developed plot, the text (or prose) is not poetic or flowery. The language is to the point so we can get on with the business of reading a thrilling story.

On the other hand, with writers of literature - not pop fiction - it’s expected that the language, the prose, reflect a certain consideration and artistry. For example, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being not only reflects a strong plot, but the language within it reflects aa great deal of articulation. Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri is an author that comes to mind though there are many.

Jhumpa Lahiri at conference; a highly prose driven writer.

Jhumpa Lahiri at conference; a highly prose driven writer.

In Conclusion

The particular traits of the genre of writing you work in may match to one methodology as apposed to another. And ultimately, the way you approach problems, your particular characteristics, will influence which method you choose.

Writing processes are highly individualistic. Some aspects of the process are sometimes tedious for the author to write, be it copy, plot, scene structure, dialogue, environmental description, character development, types of POV. The writing methodology mitigates this tedium, making it more palatable

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