Layers: Making Your Story More Complex

I’ve been watching the six-episode documentary on Hulu entitled “McCartney: 3, 2, 1” that is an extensive interview with Paul McCartney about his life with the Beatles and the music they created. It’s a fascinating look at the craft of creating music from a master, and I highly recommend it.

But as I’ve been watching it, I can’t help but draw some parallels between writing and producing music, and what we do as writers. Paul talks about how in the early years they used to believe “if we can sneak it past the producers, then it doesn’t matter if it’s not good.” And a lot of time, writers tend to think about editors the same way. We think of editors as adversaries just trying to keep us from getting published, when in reality, just like producers, they are just trying to get the very best product possible out there to the audience.

Why? It’s obvious. The better the product, the more likely the consumer will buy it. One of the things I’m realizing as I watch this documentary is how sophisticated many of these songs are. You hear a song and say, that’s really good. But how often do you think of the details that are added, subtracted or altered in the studio to make it good?

McCartney talks about how simple their songs were to begin with, and how they added “layers” as time went on. He goes on to show how the drumming was special, or the baseline was unique, or how the guitar riff was something taken from a Buddy Holly song years before. The song starts with an original idea, but then as the band gets together, the layers they add and fashion make the song special.

And that’s where writing comes in. I have many students who want to start by writing massive novel projects, not realizing how complex a task they are taking on. I always advise beginners to start with short stories, just as the Beatles started with simple songs.

Then as you develop your skills, you are ready to try a book and at some point, you add layers. Instead of one plotline, you add multiple plotlines. You think about imagery, and symbolism and use that in your book. You cut back on exposition and learn to build it all into the action. In other words, you grow as a writer.

But as your writing becomes more sophisticated, there’s no guarantee that complexity is the same as quality. Sometimes you need to back to the basics. When the Beatles broke up, after spending years doing experimental, innovative stuff together, Paul McCartney found himself on his own again and decided to go back to the start. If you listen to his first solo album, McCartney, you can hear that. And simple can be pretty good too.

The important point is to start simple, then build slowly. Learn as you go, and go back to basic if you need to.

And don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s how you learn. Just ask the Beatles.