Bells and Whistles:
Adding Layers to Your Story

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Whether you write fiction or poetry, there comes a point when you want to move beyond the basics. You pay attention to basic structure, be it plotline or rhythm. You understand how to use point of view. Your grammar is good and you know where to put line breaks or how to set up chapters.

Now what?

If you’re looking for a greater challenge as a writer, why not try adding some “bells and whistles” to your work? Symbolism, atmosphere, characterization, themes and conflict are a few devices that can bring your writing to the next level. This article will define each of those devices and give examples on how you can incorporate them into existing work or how you can create something fresh with these ideas in mind. My primary target is fiction writers, and the language in the article reflects this, but poetry writers and non-fiction writers can also use the information and ideas to enhance their work.

Background Image: Nikolai Vassiliev/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)


Forget what you were taught about white whales and green lights at the ends of docks. Symbolism isn’t a stuffy device meant to turn junk into Meaningful Literature. Symbolism is basically something that has a meaning beyond itself. That’s it. That isn’t too intimidating, is it?

There are two kinds of symbolism: cultural/universal and contextual/authorial.

A universal symbol, or archetype, has an accepted meaning. Examples include rain = cleansing, light = knowledge and circles = infinity. Does that mean that a circle is always meant to invoke infinity? Of course not. Circles may also indicate perfection, wholeness, the cycle of life, et cetera. That’s the trick about universal symbols: the meanings are built right in for you.

If you want to use a symbol to mean something completely new and different, that’s an authorial symbol. The symbol may mean something else in another work or in a universal context but in your story, it’s what you want it to be. Maybe you want a circle to represent a certain character, a time of day or emptiness.

You can approach symbolism two ways: have your symbols in mind from the beginning and incorporate them into your work or finish the work first and go back to see what stands out to you.

Stephen King wrote that after completing a draft of Carrie, he noticed that “there was blood at all three crucial points of the story. …The blood in Carrie seemed more than just splatter to me. It seemed to mean something. That meaning wasn’t consciously created, however. While writing Carrie, I never once stopped to think [about its symbolism].”1

A writing buddy might be able to point symbols out to you if you can’t find any in your work. Here’s a nice list of common symbols and their meanings to get you started.

Symbols are hard workers. Use them to underscore your themes or to speak for you. Don’t be shy about using a symbol. It adds to the bond between reader and writer. You’re not creating work for the reader; you’re adding a layer of enjoyment.

Atmosphere and Tone

You’ve established a setting and a point of view, which means you’ve already set the atmosphere and tone of your story. That’s not to say that the terms are interchangeable but that you have a grasp of this concept already.

The atmosphere is the mood of your story; the tone is how you convey the story to the reader (and your attitude toward the reader as well). Do you want him to be comfortable or a little on edge? Did you start to write something comic and have it evolve into a mystery? Do you want to write romance or erotica? In these cases, the tones are very different and can be established with your first line. The trick is to carry the tone through your work, through changes in characters and plot, so that your work is cohesive.

Atmosphere and tone go hand-in-hand. These concepts work together in your basic structure. They’re not something you can really add on afterward. You can go back in your editing process and tweak and change but you automatically work with atmosphere and tone when you write.

One tip for setting atmosphere as you write is to use music. Listen to music that present an atmosphere like the one you want to convey. If you find London Calling to be relaxing and you want to write a relaxing story, use it. If you’re frightened by disco and want to write a spooky story, borrow some Bee Gees and set the creepy atmosphere while you work. It doesn’t matter what tool you use; what matters is the final product.

You can change moods within your story, going from playful to serious for example, but your tone remains the same. Here are two examples of different mood from The Catcher In The Rye:

He started off with about fifty corny jokes, just to show us what a regular guy he was. Very big deal. Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down on his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God — talk to him and all — wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.2

Then all of a sudden, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I did it so nobody could hear me, but I did it. It scared hell out of old Phoebe when I started doing it, and she came over and tried to make me stop, but once you get started, you can’t just stop on a goddamn dime. I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when I did it, and she put her old arm around my neck, and I put my arm around her, too, but I still couldn’t stop for a long time. I thought I was going to choke to death or something. Boy, I scared hell out of poor old Phoebe. The damn window was open and everything, and I could feel her shivering and all, because all she had on was her pajamas. I tried to make her get back in bed, but she wouldn’t go. Finally I stopped. But it certainly took me a long, long time.3

To work on tone, pay particular attention to word choice. For example, which of these best fits your story: find, ascertain, get a hit, locate, score or rustle up? In your prose, is the narrator speaking for you or do you have a different take? It can be difficult for some readers to separate the author from the narrator but in other cases, like in this excerpt from American Psycho, it’s easy:

Scott and Anne insisted that we all order some kind of blackened medium-rare redfish, a Deck Chairs specialty which was, luckily for them, an entree on one of the mock menus that Jean made up for me. If it hadn’t, and if they nevertheless insisted on my ordering it, the odds were pretty good that after dinner tonight I would have broken into Scott and Anne’s studio at around two this morning — after Late Night With David Letterman — and with an ax chopped them to pieces, first making Anne watch Scott bleed to death from gaping chest wounds, and then I would have found a way to get to Exeter where I would pour a bottle of acid all over their son’s slanty-eyed zipperhead face.4

One way to think of tone is to think about how you speak in everyday life. Your resume has a different tone from your weblog. You use a different vocabulary in personal e-mails than in professional e-mails. You speak differently to your child, your mother, your boss and your best friend. These are all changes in tone, incorporating not only a change in your voice but in your vocabulary and in the way you structure sentences. Having a specific audience in mind can help you focus your tone.


Creating characters is one of the most fun aspects of fiction writing.You sit down with a blank piece of paper or computer screen and make up a person from scratch. You determine what they look like, what they think and feel, where they’ve been and what’s happening to them next. You spent a lot of time and effort on creating your main characters. What about the people in the background?

There are two types of characters: flat and round. Flat characters stay the same throughout the story. Round characters change. Ideally your main characters are round. You might ask, “Why would I even include flat characters in my story?” Flat characters serve many purposes and you can use them, along the characterization of your round ones, to add meaning to your fiction.

Flat characters provide a point of reference, like a point on the horizon that you watch while riding in a car or train or a ruler in a photo of a miniature teapot. Effective use of flat characters, including stock characters and stereotypes, can add new dimension to your rounded characters. Do you really need to have a backstory and conflict for the shopkeeper in your third chapter? You don’t need to know much about the people you encounter every day and the same goes for your main characters. Put your energy into the most important people in your story. If a flat character wants to be more than background noise, he’ll let you know. If he screams to be fleshed out, maybe he’s not the minor character you thought he was.

Themes and Conflict

What’s at stake in your story? If you’re not sure of the answer, maybe you should sit down with your story and decide what’s going on. There could be a lack of focus or a lack of urgency. Has your story stagnated? This may be why.

The conflict in your story can take many forms. Let’s use the Harry Potter series as an example. The conflict could be an inner struggle, like Harry’s survivor guilt or his reluctance to become a hero. The conflict could be outward, like Harry’s constant clashes with Lord Voldemort. It could be both, in a single story. I recommend making one conflict a priority. It’s natural to have layers of conflict in your story. In our example, the outer conflict has led to the inner conflict but, in my opinion, it is the inner conflict which J.K. Rowling has given greater emphasis and in which her readers have taken a greater interest. I mean, we all know that (by the nature of the series) good (Harry) will win over evil (Voldemort) but how will Harry resolve his personal issues and to what extent? That’s the mystery and why we keep reading.

Beyond your conflict, there is a theme to your story. Why are you telling it? The first answer might be “it’s fun” or “I had a great idea about…” but there is something you’re saying with this story. What is it? It could be something simple like “love conquers all” or “the ends justify the means.” It could be more complicated, like “what we call ‘fate’ is the result of our actions” or “blind faith can only lead to disaster.”

To decide your theme, write down your statement. Do not ask a question, like “what if…” or “where do we…” Say something firm that you believe. If it’s unpopular or controversial, great. You have the length of your piece to explain what you’re saying, to argue or prove the statement. If it’s unoriginal, who cares? It’s the story that’s original—or not (A Thousand Acres, East of Eden or, yes, the Harry Potter series)—and how you surround your statement is fresh.

Conflict and theme work well together. Deciding one can help decide the other, if you’re feeling stuck. For example, you’ve got a situation and a protagonist ready to go and you want to make Statement X. Now, think of what can happen to your character that will push the statement. What’s the worst thing that can happen to your character? Write it. What’s the most outrageous way you can convey your theme? Write it. Who’s the antagonist? Write a scene all about her. Try her point of view. How does using her as a narrator alter your theme? Conflict and theme are great places to play and to expand your writing skills. Don’t be surprised if your theme changes, maybe becoming more focused or turning into the opposite of what you’d intended. That’s part of the joy of writing.

For companion pieces to this article, I recommend Theryn Fleming’s “Recognizing Your Voice,” Mollie Savage’s “The Magical Music of Words” and Amanda Marlowe’s “Textured Descriptions.”

  1. Stephen King, On Writing, p. 199
  2. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye, p. 23
  3. Ibid, p. 233
  4. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, p. 95

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