Icy Layers and Scene Building


Chimney smoke swirled through trees dancing in the wind. Snow was coming. Its progress was evident as a white curtain making its way across the lake towards our tiny cabin. The men – husband, son and grandson – were somewhere in the woods, miles away, hunting for moose and deer, while I crammed firewood into the airtight heater and stayed toasty inside.

Hunting season is my time to read, write and contemplate. From dawn to dusk each day over the past two weeks my isolation created a personal retreat. I read, wrote, and on nicer days walked with the dog, my camera in hand.

During the first week, the overnight temperatures were around -10o Celsius and one morning our end of the lake had a skim of ice. That was the day snow arrived. Subsequent nights the icy area expanded, creating multiple layers extending from the shore, with snow on only the first layer.

Fascinated by the textures, I took umpteen dozen photos. In all the years of being there for November hunting seasons, I’d never seen the ice forming.

Visions of that layering intruded on my afternoon writing sessions and reminded me of how we develop complexity in our novels. We plan a scene, the main action that will be visible, but beneath its surface there must be supportive building blocks – multifaceted characters caught in internal or external conflict, motivation that gives purpose to the scene, and an unexpected outcome that leads to yet another action. As we carry the story through one scene to another, building on these layers, the plot is strengthened.

No scene stands alone. If it isn’t tied to an earlier scene and integral to the outcome, it doesn’t belong in the story. If the intensity dwindles rather than builds, lukewarm winds of indifference will eat away at the edges of a scene until it’s nothing more than a slushy film that can’t justify its existence. That’s when we hit the delete key!

Hmmm… that’s sort of what happened to the ice on the lake just before we returned home. A benign south wind brought ripples to lap at the edges, the temperature crept up, and by sunset the last day there was nothing left but a papery ridge along the shoreline. The ice hadn’t been thick enough to sustain itself against a mild but persistent wind.

There’s layering in a story, but also layering of warm clothes on a chilly day, layering that creates a sophisticated haircut, layering in musical themes and art, layering for the propagation of garden shrubs…. Sorry, I’m meandering, but I think I might have to post some of these photos on my office bulletin board as reminders of the importance of layering since I won’t be at the lake next month to see the winter’s ice rebuild. It’ll be under a couple feet of snow by the next visit.

What other ways can you think of to utilize layering in your storytelling?