Juggling Multiple Plot Lines
NOVEL SPOTLIGHT (Pops):
In 2011, Simon & Schuster published Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I received the book as a Christmas present from one of my sons-in-law. It’s weighty book, as King’s novels often are, of 850 pages or so. King has proven himself a master writer. Not just a sensational writer, or controversial writer, but a true wordsmith and storyteller. Horror is not my favorite genre, but I have enjoyed (and learned a few writing tricks) from some of King’s books.
Why this book?
- The premise is not new, but King’s approach is unique.
- Compounded complexities.
- Opening line. “I’m never been what you’d call a crying man.”
- The least likely protagonist.
Firsts in Fiction
Juggling Multiple Plot Lines
Intro: Today’s topic comes from Bradley S. Cobb, who contacted me at aarongansky.com. He writes: “My question is about something that impressed me with the Perry Sachs novels, and Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels as well. They so seamlessly blend together seemingly random plotlines into one grand tale. How do you come up with, or decide on, these various plotlines, and how much rewriting do you end up having to do in order to integrate these various threads of story throughout your novels?”
AL: Multiple plotlines is the norm for third-person, full-length novels. In fact, some say that such novels must have multiple plotlines and multiple point of view characters. The only time I don’t use them is first-person novels, including my first novel, By My Hands.
MJ: For me, it’s just a bit like writing life. There are times when we interact or intersect with others, and times we go our separate ways. A family doesn’t always stay together, and they have their own random activities throughout the day: Dad works, Mom buys groceries, one kid’s at school, another’s at daycare. But in the evening they all circle ‘round again. I think multiple plot lines are much like this. Find what the together-aspect is, and work outward to find where your characters go when they separate. Then write the story in reverse; that is, write it first with the individual actions leading them to the community table.
What do we mean by a “plot line?”
- A plot line is a story thread–a single narrative that weaves together with others to create a larger story.
- AL: A plotline is a series of scenes with a single task or setting. In first person, there is only one pov character (usually). Having multiple plotlines allows the writer to convey action and information through multiple characters. A writer can have a set of scenes in one country with one character, and a character in another country. Still, there should be one primary POV character, one top protagonist (even in ensemble works)
- Simply put, “plot line” is the story you’re trying to tell. As Aaron said, it’s weaving. Think of your story like a small blanket. You need to weave together several strong ones to make a blanket, or covering.
Is there a proper number of plot lines for a novel?
- As is the case with most other “rules” of fiction, there is no specific number of “plot lines.” You can have several (anywhere from three to five), or as few as one. Here are some guidelines, though.
- Plot lines are usually limited by point of view. If you’re in first or second person (or even a true third-person close, where you limit yourself only to one character’s perspective), you can only follow one plot line, a single narrative. This works well for mysteries, where you want to keep the intrigue high and limit the amount of information revealed as you go.
- Al: My rule is to use the protagonist’s POV whenever the protagonist is present–unless there is some pressing (but not contrived) reason for doing otherwise.
- If you’re in 3rd person omniscient, you can follow several characters (including antagonists). This increases the plot lines you can follow. This is typical in fantasies, sci-fi, adventure, etc.
- A word of caution if you do this: Make sure your “voice” is consistent. You can’t be omniscient and first person.
- Al: It increases opportunities for conflict, action, information, heighthen danger.
- Adding plotlines increases your character count and your page count. It’s possible that you can add too much, which makes your story hard to follow. If there’s not a real connection between the plots, it can be hard to follow. If you spend too much time away from one thread, readers may forget what was going on and be confused.
- Al: I think of it this way: 1) There is one master plotline and it involves the protagonist. It is here where the reader will spend most of his/her time. 2) All other plotlines serve the primary plot. There has to be a connection or the plotline is superfluous and a divergence.
Finding the lines
- Many years ago, I (Aaron) took an art class in college. Loved it. One of the things the instructor stressed was “finding the lines.” The idea, he said, was to sketch several different lines, and when you found the right one (which may be more of a composite of several lines), that is the one you darkened in, the one you emphasized. The others got erased. To a large extent, I think plot lines are like this. When writing a novel, cast a wide net. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How does this decision affect each of my characters?
- What new paths does this open to them that was previously closed off?
- What new characters might this plot thread reveal?
- Where do my characters need to be? What needs to happen to get them there?
- Much of this can be done in pre writing, outlining. Sometimes, though, these lines announce themselves as you’re writing.
- Al: These are all good points. The key to any story is the action of the key players. The story is the trunk of the tree, additional plot lines are the branches. The branches must always connect to the tree.
- Sometimes the writer must remind himself/herself of the premise, the big picture: this is the problem, this character is the hero who must fix the problem, this is the person/people who work hard to make sure the hero fails. Keep in mind why the protagonist must succeed. What happens if he fails? Stay on track.
- Keep notes! Often with our first drafts and follow ups, we’ll change subtleties. But on version 2.8 you may discover you want to revert something from the original. I recently found a passage I’d removed from NOLA that, during this rewrite stage, is going back in. Your characters will dictate to you, just be sure you’re listening.
How to blend plot lines.
- The movement between plot lines needs to be deliberate. Balance the revelation of information. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- DO move between perspectives to follow narratives.
- Al: Be sure to make moves clear to the reader. Use a hiatus break (white-line break) to signal a change in POV character, change in time, or change in location.
- DO try to allow equal time so readers don’t forget particular characters and their “quests.” (But the protagonist should get most of the attention.)
- DO make the shifts in time/place very clear. (Make sure the POV character is clear in the first couple of paragraphs of the new scene/plotline.)
- DO remind readers (very briefly and subtly) where the characters are and what they’re working toward. (I.E. After Arthur had slain the beast, he continued forward toward the Holy Grail.)
- DO keep track of who is where and what they know and what each scene reveals. This is best done through story bibles which we’ve talked about before. TIMESTAMPS can help here–to keep track of which events are happening when. Also doesn’t hurt to have a timeline.
- Al: Timestamps sometimes appear at the top of each change, especially if there’s a change in time. Use these in your first draft. You can delete them once you’re sure everything fits.
- I’ve messed this up a couple of times.
- DO make scenes relevant: If they don’t move the story forward, you’ve got to cut them. Sometimes it helps to think of each plot line as its own story with it’s own arc.
- Yeah, this is tricky. Because we want to think we’re birthing the perfect baby, and performing surgery like removing entire scenes and sometimes chapters, is really hard. But the truth is, it has to be done and your story will be much stronger because of it.
- Al: Every scene needs to do one of three things: 1) move the story forward, 2) reveal information the reader needs, 3) set up action to come.
- Aaron’s list is a bit different, though one may argue that his list is simply more specific, and that each item is contained neatly and succinctly in Pops’ list. Aaron includes: 1) Introducing a new conflict 2) Escalating an existing conflict 3) Resolving (to varying degrees) an established conflict 4) Develop (and or deepen) characters and relationships between characters 5) Setting up action to come
- DO bring everything together at the end. Tying everything together is satisfying for the reader. It makes them feel as if their time had been well spent. Think of it this way: what would happen if you took one of these plot lines out? Would the rest of the novel fall apart? If so, keep it. If not, cut it.
- Readers hate to be left with questions. (Dark Moon illustration.)
- DON’T neglect characters for too long.
- DON’T repeat information we’ve already read.
- DON’T confuse what characters know–some will know what happens in other scenes, but most won’t know what happens when they’re not there (unless they’re told by other characters i. e. Franky explained the whole ordeal to Sally before they got on the bus.)
- DO move between perspectives to follow narratives.