Creating the Perfect Parfait

The word “parfait” means “perfect” in French, and truly, the parfait is one of those desserts that, in my opinion, isn’t given its due. On the surface, a parfait appears a rather simple concoction. There is no blending of ingredients, no baking, no need for dough to rise or for alcohol to burn off. There’s no risk of milk curdling or over-beating of eggs.

Yet many times, in my opinion, the parfait is done wrong. To me, the perfect parfait consists of alternating layers of smooth and creamy, fresh and fruity, hard and crunchy. Without a substantive layer of granola or cake, a parfait is nothing but a dish of pudding. You need something into which you can sink your teeth.

parfait / パフェ

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kankan/39427698/ (Photo by Kanko)

So it goes with writing. Whether contemporary, historical, or romantic suspense, a book that is too much fluff and not enough substance just melts away like so much whipped cream on the tongue.

I want to tell you about one of my “a-ha” moments as a writer:  the moment I learned about layering.

I was in the sixth grade. I had always been an excellent student. Through the fifth grade, my teachers praised my writing. The front page of any story I wrote was a virtual constellation of shiny star stickers. Then came Mrs. Lenz, my sixth grade Language Arts teacher.

Mrs. Lenz clearly wasn’t impressed with my efforts. In a grading system where you earned a check-plus, a check, or a check-minus, I landed solidly on middle ground. My check-plus world came crashing down, and I became acutely aware that I wasn’t this teacher’s darling. My 11-year-old self was devastated. What’s a girl to do?

Being me, I was determined to get that check-plus if it killed me. I remember sitting on my bed, crafting a short story for LA. It started off something like this:

                 Cassie sat on the floor watching television.

                “Why don’t you find something better to do?” Dad asked.

                “Okay,” Cassie said. She got up and left the room.

 

Even I could tell the story was going to be boring. So I thought about the books I loved, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, and the like. What made me love them? How did the writer make the stories interesting? I tried again.

                  Cassie sat on the floor in front of the television, staring blankly at the screen. She sighed, a long, bored sigh.

                “Nothing on, pumpkin?” Dad asked, peering over his Sunday paper.

                “No. I hate this show,” Cassie replied.

                “I saw the Doran sisters playing in their backyard,” Dad said. “Why don’t you see if you can play with them?”

                “Okay,” Cassie said. She pushed the button to turn off the t.v. “Thanks, Dad.” Cassie kissed the top of her father’s bald head and went outside.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t sell any books with that set-up, but clearly the second effort was better than the first. Mrs. Lenz thought so, too. That story earned a check-plus-plus-plus! Why? The layering.

In the first attempt, the reader learns nothing about the characters, or their situation. They might as well be paper dolls, flat and lifeless. Who wants to read that?

The second attempt is better. By layering in some action and dialogue, the reader learns several things. Cassie is bored watching a show she despises. There are girls in the neighborhood she can play with, and the neighborhood is probably in the suburbs. She has a good relationship with her father.  You get a little bit of an idea of what her father looks like.

Little did I know at the time that this process was the same process I would use now as a writer. Here is a paragraph from my current work-in-progress:

Instead of lace, the curtains in the house she had shared with Marcus were made of silk. The bed in their contemporary hilltop home was a black laminate California King, so large you had to cross a chasm to snuggle, which was fine with Marcus because he liked his space when he slept. Like the bed (and like Marcus, if she was honest with herself), everything in the Hollywood house was slick and smooth, from the modern, white laminate kitchen with quartz countertops, to the Lucite tables and leather sofas of the living room. From the polished marble floors to the stainless steel appliances, the glass sculptures in the foyer to the grand piano that nobody played, nothing in the house she had occupied for the past four years was meant to be touched. In fact, if she did, Marcus would rant at her about the fingerprints she had left behind. In the end, she had been afraid to move, for fear it would set Marcus off on one of his tirades.

By describing the scene, the reader learns an awful lot about the characters in this backstory-laced paragraph. You especially learn about the heroine’s ex-boyfriend, Marcus. You would hope (and you would be right) that the heroine had left this man behind for someone much warmer and genuine.

So, how do you layer a scene? Using my sixth grade story as an example, follow these steps.

Step 1: Write a rough draft of the scene. This is like putting the primary ingredient in your parfait…the fruit on the bottom.

Step 2:  Add a layer of whipped cream, something to sweeten the deal, in the form of setting, like the television and Dad’s recliner. Now you’ve put your characters in a location, and defined the scene.

Step 3:  Another layer of fruit is added…action. A static scene is a boring scene. Just like fruit to a parfait, action is integral to rounding out the flavor of a scene. If Cassie had stomped from the room, the flavor of the scene would be different than it is when she kisses her father’s head on the way out.

And so it goes. If I were to write that scene now, I would add more emotion to the opening paragraphs. To me, a good book is judged by how it makes you feel, how it changes the way you think. Emotions, especially in romance novels, are the granola of the parfait, the crunch, what causes the characters to act as they do and propels the action forward.

Add layers of sensory perception and backstory. Top them off with some serious chemistry. The more layers in the parfait, the tastier it is. Add a few surprises, a syrup or some almond slivers to keep the reader guessing , and you have created a parfait of storytelling that will have your readers coming back for seconds.

Jaye

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10 Comments

  1. Jenna Blue

     /  May 22, 2013

    Jaye, I love the parfait analogy! You are making me wish for dessert! And it’s so very true. It’s the biggest beef I have with so many books I read. There’s just not enough—not enough substance, emotion, depth, even backstory—yes, layering! That’s the way I like to read ’em, and unfortunately it seems that’s the way I write ’em—hence the need to cut this 100K ms (sigh, there’s probably 20K on the cutting room, ahem—office, floor already…). Worth it though, if I end up creating a richly-layered story. (Hoping and praying here…)
    Nice post, Jaye, thank you!

    Reply
    • Better too many words than not enough, Jenna! At least, that’s what I think! It’s so hard to get rid of words when you work so hard to get them down in the first place. Sounds like a blog post. 😉

      Reply
  2. Thanks, Jaye. You made that sound so easy! (Oh, how I wish it were.) Now I’m off to see what I have for dessert.
    Emma

    Reply
    • If it were easy, Emma, everyone would write a bestseller! I wish it were as simple as it sounds, too.

      I had a different layered dessert…strawberry shortcake. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Great analogy! This is definitely something I don’t do enough of, so thanks for the reminder.

    It’s important, though. The details are what suck a reader in, make characters come alive. I want to get a check plus plus, too! 🙂

    Reply
  4. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  May 23, 2013

    I love this topic and the simply delicious way you presented it! The check plus plus made me laugh because my daughter strives for those all the time now in her current writing assignments. Her level of enthusiasm in sharing the stories she’s written inspires me. She hasn’t reached the point of layering though. I’m going to keep your story in mind when she reaches the middle school to see if she still strives for the check plus plus.

    I love a richly layered book. I love that every writer has a different approach. I’m envious of someone like Jenna who is able to add all the layers in the first draft. I find that my layering happens (hopefully….this is assuming the blasted things are there!) in the 2nd or 3rd revision.

    Great post, Jaye! Check plus plus! 🙂

    Reply
  5. Thanks RoseAnn. Seems I’ve made a lot of people hungry for dessert with this post! I do tend to do a lot of layering in my first draft as well. However, when I did JeRo I really tried to keep the layering to a minimum so I could get my word count up faster.

    My daughter is finally starting to like writing fiction, too. Still working on non-fiction, though!

    Reply
  6. Layering is an art and I like that you’ve given us steps to accomplish it. Layering takes the reader outside the setting and puts them directly into it. As a writer, we should strive to engage all the readers senses. Layering is something I skimp on when writing my first draft. As you’ve pointed out, as I edit, I add more and more detail to help the reader see, hear, taste, feel, and even sometimes smell the scene.

    I went to a “publishing party” at in my fourth grader’s class last week. The parents broke into small groups and the kids read us stories they’d written. There was a combination of non-fiction, fiction (my son), and persuasive essays. The kids did a great job and I enjoyed hearing their different writing styles. When my son brought home his drafts, I could see the detail and light layering added. Some of the kids even used similes, which made me think of Michele.

    I agree with everyone else, Jaye, you got a check plus plus here. Now I’m thinking about parfait for breakfast. I don’t have whipped cream so low-fat vanilla yogurt will have to do.

    Reply
  7. Hi Jaye, Wow, I’m hungry for something sweet now. Great post on layering. I am reading a Sabrina Jeffries novel at the moment, and everything you say, she’s using – no wonder she’s so successful and such a wonderful read. Cheers, Michele

    Reply

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