Layer Cake: How to Bake the Best Book

Okay, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a huge Suzanne Collins fan. From a readers perspective, Hunger Games was a story that rocked my world because it was unlike anything I’d read. A compelling heroine, who I was rooting for from page one. A setting that sparked my imagination. A plot that held my interest . . . for three books!

From a writer’s perspective, wow, she still rocks.

I’m revising a manuscript, and as I do so, a mental checklist is slowly being applied. It’s a technique I use in my 5th grade writing class, where students go through their writing and make sure they’re using similes or alliteration, etc.

My students loved the Hunger Games as well. So, in today’s post, I thought I’d share with you a discussion our class had about writing. How Suzanne Collins layered her story, and ways we, as writers, can add depth to our plots.

I know you might be thinking, come on already, you’re blogging about a 5th grade writing lesson. But keep reading, you might be surprised by what you know, and don’t know.

The draft
Chances are that your draft contains conflict. The main character’s struggle to overcome some problem in order to achieve her happy ending, or change in some way or form. This is the book problem that carries the main storyline. There are ups and downs, epic failures, and various climaxes. All works of fiction have it. It would be really boring reading a story without conflict.

That’s a starting point.

Layering Your Cake: Revisions
Here are some tips for adding layers to your main storyline, to add depth to character development and the main plot and, in turn, draw readers deeper into your story.

layer cake

1) Goal/Motivation/Conflict
Every action (short, student stories) or scene (longer works of fiction) must have a purpose and help move the reader along the main plot. Katniss shoots an arrow at a roasted pig. Her goal: Make the prospective Sponsors notice her. Motivation: Get sponsorship and to survive. Conflict: She’s worried her temper has gotten the best of her and that Sponsors won’t help her. Deeper still—that she has no chance at surviving.

2) Main Character’s Personal Conflict – Her Wish and the Problem that Blocks It
A secondary plot (which sometimes overlaps with the main plot). This is the character’s emotional wish and the problem she encounters while trying to achieve it. Sometimes the main plot climax is the personal plot climax. Sometimes, it’s completely separate. Authors might end the main plot first at the book conclusion, and then hold readers attention while the emotional plot plays out. Katniss’s book wish is to survive the Hunger Games. But her personal wish is to survive so she can take care of her younger sister. Doesn’t she offer herself up to the Games in her sister’s place, which is the inciting force for this personal wish?

3) Characters Shift from Identity to Essence
I was fortunate enough to attend a Michael Hauge workshop, and this was the layering tool that resonated the most.

This layering concept is so much fun. Identity is who the character presents to the world. It’s often the hard protective shell of a person. Essence is who the character really is, often the softer core inside. A character shares their essence with one (or a few) select people, who are important to them. In fiction, it is interesting to read the slow reveal of a character’s essence.

In the case of Katniss, this shift from identity to essence is flipped. She must hide her essence and assume an identity in order to survive. Whenever the reader gets a glimpse of her essence, it’s powerful—like the scene with Rue and the Mocking Jay’s song. I cried reading it, and I cried watching it in the movie.

4) Settings with Meaning
How does the setting in a scene impact the storyline? Or character development? I was at a workshop with Patience Bloom, an editor with Harlequin. She said one of her pet peeves was when authors begin their books with characters driving somewhere. I think this is because the setting has no purpose. It doesn’t enhance the plot or character.

Katniss in ElevatorThere is a quick and simple scene within the Hunger Games, where Katniss is riding in a glass elevator that overlooks the Capitol. Why a glass elevator? In order to witness the grandeur of the Capitol in all its wealth and power. Deeper still—it’s a juxtaposition between the poverty she grew up with in District 12. Even deeper still—it is another reason why she needs to survive, in order to return to her district, and give them hope.

Of course, the entire Hunger Game arena is an obvious example of using the setting for meaning. Katniss either survives unbeatable odds or her family perishes.

5) Subtext – Theme
What is the theme of your story? How are you sharing this with the reader? Another layering technique is to work in moments that support your theme, either through character growth or with a monumental change in either plots. It’s the subtext of the story, the underlying message you are conveying.

Suzanne Collins does this masterfully. One of my favorite scenes is when Katniss raises her fist in honor of Rue, a signal of respect for another district. A signal of disrespect (and revolt) toward the Capitol.Katniss salute

The subtext throughout this series is suppression/revolt. Why the districts are not only impoverished but must provide two tributes to every Hunger Game as a consequence for a prior revolt.

6) Humor with Purpose
Okay, I really don’t know how to categorize this layering technique as it might not work for every story. If you have heavy moments in a plot, you can balance them with humor. But you need to be careful that there’s a purpose to the funny scene or witty banter. The opposite is true—if you write romantic comedy, you need to balance it with hard-hitting, emotionally-charged scenes. It’s unwise to expect the reader to be giggling nonstop, or crying with fear for the character.

Writers often incorporate sidekick characters, who are funny and who balance out the seriousness of a storyline.

The antics of the flamboyant game show host both add a layer of humor to Katniss’s interview, with an underlying undercurrent to the reader—that the Hunger Games is the ultimate reality show, and we’d better be careful, or our moral code might weaken enough that we are cheering people to the death.

There are other layering skills on my mental checklist. Adding a characters reaction to actions, layering in moments where my heroine is trying to get into the heroes head, and visa versa. Balancing dialogue with narrative.

Like I tell my 5th graders when they’re revising, “When you’re done, you’ve just begun.” Writing is a process, and we, as writers, get better with each and every story.

I hope you learned something useful. Please feel free to comment on layering techniques you use.

Leave a comment


  1. I love this checklist, Michele, and the examples from the Hunger Games really clarify everything. Thank you!

  2. Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for visiting! There is much more to layering than mentioned in this post, as you know! My hero is slowly beginning to notice little things about my heroine, and visa versa, which needed to be layered in. That should have been number 7! I’m glad you liked the post. Cheers, Michele

  3. Michele,
    Great post and great food for thought and practice.. that cake looks delicious too.;-) Thanks for sharing the list.

  4. Such great tips, Michele! And I haven’t read HG (I know, I know), but I could still relate to your examples. It’s always stuff like this that I try to remember on the second (and third!) pass. Or, my helpful critique partners will remind me of its omission. 🙂


  5. Hi Nicole, thanks for commenting. I always seem to relate things to food, especially sweets! Glad you liked it. Cheers, Michele

  6. Hi Joanna, OMG – you HAVE to read Hunger Games. Like I said in the blog, it is so well written, from plotting, characterization, and writing. I’d like to say my first draft incorporates layering, but . . . you’ve seen my drafts. I think its easier to layer in once you have something on the page – but that might just be my process. I totally agree about helpful critique partners too. 🙂 Cheers, Michele

  7. Jenna Blue

     /  June 24, 2013

    Michele, I just love that: When you’re done, you’ve only just begun! Oh, so bloomin’ true! Great points here & fab job explaining how they work in the Hunger Games (agreed: an amazing series, totally tops). I seem to be able still to sit back and become a viewer/reader most of the time and not pick/think too much, so I’m amazed that you can call all this out. Dead on, too! Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  8. Hi Jenna, it’s hard reading for pleasure and reading for craft. I’ve read the first HUNGER GAMES three times and the first was strictly pleasure. But you have to teach to student interests, so when they love the book as well . . . Anyway, writers learn from other writers, and I know Suzanne Collins certainly inspired me. Cheers, Michele

  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  June 26, 2013

    Just like the HUNGER GAMES is so richly layer, so was this post. I had to digest and go back for seconds before commenting. You know I LOVE the Hunger Games and Katniss. What an amazing Hero’s Journey. I have to give a HUGE shout out to Femme Jenna who impressed upon me the importance of reading this book. Katniss’ struggle with Identity and essence resonated with me as well. I dedicated an entire blog post on the topic.

    This post made me look a little deeper at my own material. While most drafts start with your first two layers of GMC, most new authors will often stop there. Your remaining four layers are a great check list before considering a manuscript ready for submission. I LOVE that you included humor with purpose!

    Thank you!

    P.S. Your students are SUPER LUCKY TO HAVE YOU!

  10. Hi RoseAnn,

    I love that you loved the books as much as I did – and blogged about Katniss’ s struggle to find her essence. So important in character growth, and Suzanne Collins does it amazingly.
    Even look at how she varies sentence structure, longer paragraphs ending with short sentences. So powerful. And, her use of the senses, something I need to layer into my WIP, especially when describing a new setting.

    Thanks for commenting.
    Cheers, Michele

  11. Michele, this is such a good checklist to have on hand. Just when I think I’m done, going through these points will help to ensure I’ve hit all the points and written as complete a manuscript as I can.

    It also impresses upon me how much work is actually involved in writing a manuscript. It’s not like we sit down one day, say “I’m going to bang out a book and sell it”, and voila!, it happens! When fellow authors say it takes blood, sweat and tears, they’re not kidding. Nobody wants to read a shell of a story. Readers want to feel something. Kristin Hannah is so good at layering. In her book Winter Garden, the layering snuck up on me. Hannah built the tension and sucked me in until the point where, when a devastating event happened to one of the characters, it was so painful for me as a reader that I literally curled up into a ball.

    I also love your point about character shift…if the main characters don’t change, what is the point of writing the story? We all present our Identity to the world…and probably should all work a little more at showing our essence. Words to live, and not just write, by.


  12. Great post, Michele. Like Jaye said, there is so much work that goes into writing a story. Thanks for the checklist. It will be a great reminder of what to apply to my WIP.

  13. Hi Jaye, I don’t know how authors post about writing a book in a month! Koodos to them! Kristin Hannah is an amazing author, and she layers the complexity of her story so well. I love showing characters finding their essence and when an author has a slow reveal of this (rather than the character waking up one day and saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s not that bad.” 🙂

    Cheers, Michele

  14. Hi Maria, I know how hard YOU work on writing–those early morning hours! I have so much admiration for your work ethic. It will pay off, hopefully soon. So keep layering away. 🙂 Michele


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