Layered Stories: How to Add Richness to Your Writing

Humans are fascinated by complexity. Complexity creates richness.

It’s a fine balance — too simple and we get bored, too complex and we become confused. But as a general rule of thumb, the more complex something is, the more interesting it is to us, and the longer it can hold our attention.

Adding layers of complexity to your writing (both fiction and nonfiction) keeps your reader engaged in a way a simple story can’t.

You want to start with something simple, and then build. The word “layer” is key — layers of complexity is what will breathe richness into your writing.

Simplicity makes it easy to slip in; complexity keeps us captivated. The best writing has both.

The core plot/thesis of your piece is the framework upon which everything else will be built. You want this framework to be simple enough to follow easily — too complex, and there won’t be room for anything else.

But on top of (and underneath) the main plot and thesis, add layers of complexity. Subplots, additional stories, new threads. Weave them like a tapestry. The more complex, the more interesting your piece will be.

Innovation is About Reading Between the Lines

To be average is to see what exists. To innovate, create, and be above average is to see in between what exists, to what could be.

Example of seeing in between: people use social media to connect, and people call taxis to get rides. What if the two were combined, and people used social media to get rides? That was the basis of Zimride, the original ridesharing service that later morphed into Lyft. Acquired FM did a phenomenal episode on this story, which you can find here.

Logan Green and John Zimmer (the co-founders of Zimride and later Lyft) looked in between things that already exist, and saw the potential for what might be. They combined things that already existed and remixed them (the basis for all creativity), and they read in between the lines of what exists.

Here’s an exercise: look at a city skyline. If you’re in a city, look at it in person (it’s more powerful that way). If not, look at a photo. Look not at what’s already there, but the spaces in between, and imagine what could be. What would the city look like with ten more buildings, twenty, fifty? Where is there empty space waiting to be filled?

To be average is to see what’s there — the buildings rising towards the sky, the concrete and the glass and the steel. There’s a lot to look at — the human engineering, the business, the industry. It’s enough to keep one busy for a lifetime, just exploring what already exists.

But exploring what already exists doesn’t create anything new. There’s no forward progress, no creativity, no exploration beyond the bounds of what’s known.

To be a creative force, look at what isn’t yet there.

It isn’t just about raw speculation and blind imagination. There are indicators one can learn to read to see what likely will be there in future — what will be needed, or wanted, or created by circumstance.

Human development and human needs aren’t random. There’s a spectrum of things humans need and desire, and a variety of circumstances that elicit those needs and create opportunity.

As an example: the following is an excerpt from David Perell’s newsletter, which came out this evening. It expounds upon this quite nicely:

Munger, China, and Vietnam

While traveling by bus in Missouri, I sat next to a Hong Kong based investor who recently had dinner with Charlie Munger at his home in Los Angeles. After hearing about his dinner, I asked him what he’s excited about. He responded with two surprising insights:

  1. China has the fastest growing elderly population in the world. Due to the one-child policy (enacted in the 1970s) and the country’s wealth boom, the elderly care industry is about to explode.
  2. He was more bullish on Ho Chi Minh City than any other city in the world. Median wages in China are growing fast, so manufacturing is moving abroad. A lot of the low-end manufacturing is moving to Bangladesh and the higher-end manufacturing is moving to Vietnam, a country with 95 million people and a 98.5 percent literacy rate. Thus, he believes that Vietnam is an attractive place to invest.

This investor is looking at a) what will be (the circumstances that are unfolding and the needs and opportunities that will arise) and b) what could be (how to capitalize on those opportunities).

Human desire is based around pain points and needs, and opportunity is created by fulfilling those needs. Learning to predict needs helps you see the spaces between what currently exists in a constructive way, that allows you to treat them as opportunities to be intentionally executed on.

Moving as a Study in Persevering

I moved today — for the fifth time in fifteen months. Not far — just across the Ravenel Bridge, from Downtown Charleston to Mt. Pleasant — but the distance almost doesn’t matter. If you’re moving, it’s unsettling and a bother.

Also, again — the fifth time in fifteen months. I reused boxes today I used in that first move 15 months ago. I’m getting rather good at this.

Tonight’s blog post is less a set of cohesive thoughts, nor an endeavor to create a lucid narrative, or draw a conclusion. Instead, it’s a collection of reflections that I’ve been chewing on today as I pick up my life and carry it, one cardboard box at a time (and a second set of hands for my bed, table, and chairs) out of my old house, down the stairs, into my car, back out of my car, through a parking lot, up four floors in an elevator, and down a set of halls.

Moving is a good time for reflection. Two reasons for that:
a) physical labor tends to elicit thoughts like this, and
b) it’s the closing of a chapter and a start of a new one.

Even if the era wasn’t distinctly defined on other fronts, each place I’ve lived has felt like a chapter, and each move, a close.
The parameters you set around the way you experience life on the daily shift each time you move to a new location, and those parameters shape the way you perceive the things you’re doing as you’re living.

The closing of a chapter always prompts me to reflect on the one closing — what went well, what went badly, what we learned, how we changed, and what we could work on doing better. In addition, the opening of a new chapter always fills me with excitement — so much you can do with this new space being opened,

The handling of my belongings makes me happy. Handling each piece I’ve intentionally acquired, each piece with a back story, each piece that brings joy into my life. I take pleasure in handling each.

The adversity, too. Moving is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a lot of work. In this context, it was 95 degrees and humid as hell. You can look at this as something uncomfortable and miserable, and fight it the whole way — or you can look at it as a challenge designed to make you smarter, and lean into it and embrase it.

Always Seek to Become More Interesting

Always seek to become more interesting. Becoming more interesting requires learning. It requires obtaining new experiences, and new information, and new knowledge.

Interestingness is a good indicator of value.

The more interesting you are, the more interesting the content you’re able to create. The greater your well of information that you can draw from, the better your creative capacity, and the higher-value ideas you’ll have.

The more interesting you are, the more interested other people will be in you — in talking to you, in learning from you, in collaborating with you, in working with you.

The more interesting you are, the higher your own quality of life will be — because you’ll be more interesting to yourself.

Always seek to become more interesting. Go out into the world and consume content, have interesting experiences,

Live Curious, not Constricted

There are two different ways you can make decisions: from a place of curiosity, or a place of constriction.

If you’re making decision from a curious standpoint, you’re pursuing opportunities because you wonder “what if.” You’re curious about what might have been, what might be now, or what could be in future. You’re curious to learn more. You’re driven purely by a desire for knowledge — not afraid of anything besides not knowing.

You can use this curious mindset to approach a wide array of things — work, school, the things you study, the projects you take on, and the parts of the world you choose to explore.

On the flip side, the constricted mindset can be equated to operating from a place of fear. You’re making decisions because you’re afraid of potential future consequences. For every risk you take (however small), you have to think about the potential repercussions, and the price you might have to pay.

When you make curious decisions, you’re operating from an abundance and opportunistic mindset.

When you make constricted decisions (more commonly called “fear-based decisions”), you’re operating on a very small plane of existence — limited by what you already know and what you already know is safe.

Think about both options as you’re making decisions. Which approach is more fulfilling? Which is a story you’d rather be existing in?

You Don’t Know How Much You Know

I talk all the time about how you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s one of the most important things in life — the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

But the reverse is also true — you don’t know how much you know.

And you won’t know, until there’s a context that draws it out.

We hold a vast amount of information that we never properly pin down, identify, and articulate. If there’s never a context in which you have to pin down an idea, you might never know it’s there.

It’s like driving through your town and never noticing all the mechanics’ shops that exist there until your car breaks down; at which point, you start to notice them everywhere. Or like never noticing that there’s kale in the produce aisle of most grocery stores, until you start cooking with it, at which point you see it every time you walk through the store.

If there’s never a context for our brains to stop and focus on something, we might never know it’s there.

We pick up information all the time — through conversations, content we consume, and things we experience and observe in life — and our brains file it away (and slowly process it for future use). But until we force ourselves to articulate it, we may never know it’s there.

This is why blogging is so valuable — because you have to stop and coalesce ideas that might otherwise never become concrete.

It’s why teaching and coaching have been so valuable to me — because when people ask me questions I’ve never considered before, I’m forced to try to answer them — which often leads me to realize I have answers I didn’t know I had.

When people ask me tough questions, I start to realize how much I don’t know that I don’t know. But at the same time, I start to realize how much I do know, that I never really saw before. I find myself intending to stall for time and turn out answering the question instead, in phrases and ideas I didn’t know I carried with me — but that, from that point forward, become deeply valuable to me.

There are few things in life more important than refining your knowledge. Seek this out constantly.

Give yourself writing prompts and force yourself to write. Put yourself in situations where you have to have philosophically challenging conversations. Seek out positions where you have to answer hard questions. When you force yourself to say things you haven’t said before, you realize just how much you didn’t realize you knew.