I don’t know about you, but I LOVE when stories that have a lot going on. It keeps things exciting and it also feels more true to life. Sometimes we make things happen, sometimes things happen to us. Our lives are never linear, so your characters’ shouldn’t be either.
But balancing different storylines and character arcs can be overwhelming–both for you and your reader. There’s a lot to think about and a lot to consider. You need to keep your reader interested in each plot throughout the course of the book, but if you throw too much at them at once or at the wrong time, you risk losing or confusing your audience.
With that in mind, here are four tips that I’ve found helpful when managing multiple plots and character arcs.
Each plot and character arc should have the same basic structure as your book
Make sure each storyline has its own beginning, middle, and end, complete with its own set of raising actions. Personally, I find it helpful to plot each storyline out with this 3-act plot structure, just as I do the book itself. The subplots may not be as long, detailed or as in-depth as the main plot, but they should be complete and thought out. Approaching each storyline as you do a book will force you to give each one time, attention, and direction.
Think of each storyline independently
Going off the point above, I also find it really helpful to plan each storyline independent from the rest of the book. I’m an outliner, but when I plan a book, I don’t dive right into an outline. Instead, I plan each storyline out on its own, in its entirety. This includes using the plot structure in the point above, then freewriting the storyline from start to finish. This way I know what the important scenes are, the pacing, and everything else that needs to happen. Then I consider how it fits into the whole book.
It’s also worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily have to happen before you write your first draft. It can also happen after your first or second if that works better for you. Sometimes, you need to write to discover what your storylines are. However, I would suggest mapping your plotlines out in the early stages of the revision process at the latest. In my experience, the closer you get to finishing your book, the more challenging it will be to iron out plot problems.
Personal Process Tip: If you’re an outliner, try color coding your outline. Give each plotline an assigned color, then write out each scene in the appropriate color. This way, when you look at your outline, you’ll have a sense of how balanced your story is. Here’s an example from my Instagram.
Some plotlines should be smaller and shorter than others
If all of your storylines share the same length and importance, it’s going to be incredibly overwhelming to your reader. An easy way to control importance is to consider the stakes. For example, let’s look at Harry Potter. Each book has several storylines running through it. The biggest and most important is typically related to Voldemort–those stakes are life and death. There then tends to be a secondary storyline that is more immediately dangerous or harmful, but you can be pretty sure the main characters are going to make it out alive. Then there are a handful of school and personal storylines that are problematic for their own reasons but don’t threaten the physical safety of the main characters. Each of these storylines has their moments and serves a purpose, but typically only two or three of them play a constant and active role through an entire book.
They should all be connected in some way
None of your plotlines or character arcs should be completely independent of one another. They should all be serving either your overarching main plot or your main character’s overall development–ideally, both. If your storylines don’t connect, they will often confuse and distract your reader. Readers might spend time fixating on the point of the storyline instead of fully experiencing your book. This interferes with the story you’re trying to tell. The more connected your plotlines are, the tighter and more engaging your story will read.
However, this doesn’t mean the connections have to be obvious from the start. It’s okay if the link between two storylines is a brilliant plot twist towards the end of the book. In fact, that’s often a lot of fun. Just make sure there is a logical connection at some point before the end of your novel.
As always, I hope this helps!
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Now it’s your turn: Have you struggled with managing multiple storylines? What’s been particularly problematic for you? What’s helped you? Tell me about it in the comments!