Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Juggling Plots

I have another reader question on writing, this time about juggling multiple plot threads and making them all come out at the same time.

I'm going to have to address this from the perspective of a plotter because I'm not sure how a "seat of the pants" writer would handle this, other than in revisions. Then again, even as a plotter I end up doing a lot of revisions to make everything come out right. Most novels are going to have more than one plot thread, even if some of the subplots are mostly just character arcs -- there's the thing that must be done or achieved, but then there's the personal growth the hero has to go through in order to be able to achieve the goal. A more complex novel with a larger cast of characters, particularly multiple point-of-view characters, may have more than one story goal, even if all the story goals ultimately thread together for the climax. Not every plot has to come out at the same time, though. Some subplots may rise and fall at a different rate and resolve before the main story climax, and resolving that conflict may even help lead into the big climax. Some subplots may have to wait to come out until after the main story climax. For instance, a romantic subplot may not resolve until the main story is wrapped up -- the hero saves the day, and then has the nerve (and the time) to express his love for the heroine.

I find that it's easiest to juggle multiple plot threads by making it visual in some way. Here are some techniques to try:
Storyboarding -- lay out the story beats using sticky notes on a big board, with different colored notes for each plot thread. That way you can see how the events of the book are coming together, and you can rearrange them until they flow properly.

Mind mapping -- branch out the various story elements, starting from the central plot, using different colored markers as each element branches off into its own subplot. This is a good way to see how the various plot lines relate to the main plot.

Flow chart -- Another way to see how the various plot threads diverge and connect and what has to happen first before the next thing can happen.

Parallel outline -- this is kind of a verbal way of storyboarding. Make columns for each plot thread or POV character, then list the major steps in each plot. With another ink color, connect the various threads at the point where they should intersect in the book. I've also done this with separate sheets of paper for each plot line, working each plot out separately as though it's the only story in the book, and then I create a master timeline in which I slot all those events together.

A rising/falling action chart -- make a graph showing low and high points, using different colors for each plot line. This is good for using multiple plot lines to keep the tension and action in a book going, so that you've got one plot hitting a high point while another plot is in a lull.

I think a timeline of some sort is essential for making sure everything works out the way you need it to. You may need to reverse engineer it from the outcome you want. Start with the climax where everything comes together, and work backward from there to get in all the events that need to happen in order for the climax to work, and then make sure the timing lines up. It's a lot like planning a meal, where you start with the time you want to eat and work backward to figure out how long each step in each recipe will take and determine which step you need to do, when.

You may need to use more than one of these methods to really work things out.

And then you'll probably need to tinker with it in revisions, moving events around and changing their order so that it flows better. You can use these various charts after you've written a draft to figure out how to revise. I suppose that's what "pantsers" might have to do -- do the plotting retroactively.

No comments: