In my last column we discussed the main plot and the subplot, known in screenwriting as the A Story and the B Story (continuing down the alphabet with additional subplots). We defined what they are and some of the reasons for using them. In this column we will review some of the challenges that you may face when you are working with multiple storylines.
Transitions. With multiple storylines, you will occasionally or even frequently be asking your readers to shift from one storyline to another. A change of storyline can mean a different time, place, and frequently a different set of characters. You will need to decide how and when to do it. Perhaps you switch back and forth between chapters; perhaps you switch less often. In The Lord of the Rings, the second two books (The Two Towers and The Return of the King) are both divided into two parts. In each case the first part follows everyone but Frodo and Sam (the ring bearers) and the second part focuses on the ring bearers. At any rate, whenever you hop from one storyline to another, you will need to include information to orient your readers (unless, of course, you want to confuse them).
Some authors manage transitions between storylines by following Character A into a scene in which Character B is introduced or included. The next scene follows Character B and continues with B's storyline. This transition can be so smoothly done that some readers may barely notice it; to me it is like passing the baton in a relay race.
Yet another method of managing a transition is to focus on a mood or conversation or some other commonality as you move from one storyline to the next. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is a scene in one story where one character asks of her lover, "You're leaving me?" while another reacts to receiving the same news from another character (Willow/Tara and Buffy/Giles in the episode "Tabula Rasa"). In The Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble, she writes about two cousins who have not yet met, transitioning by mentioning that they were both simultaneously dining on shepherd's pie and peas. In the first example the common thread is significant and serious; in the latter the link is fairly trivial.
Points of View. Unless you are writing in the omniscient point of view, when you shift from one storyline to another you will also be changing your storytelling's point of view. If Character A is a wealthy movie star, he will feel differently about an expensive restaurant than, say, Character B, the teenage runaway, who may be rummaging through the restaurant's dumpster and eating what was scraped off of A's dinner plate. Changing point of view always requires work, in what you choose to portray and which words you select to express the experience.
Moods. Another issue deserving attention in developing your main plot and your subplots is figuring out which emotions they will evoke in your readers and whether or not they "go" together. Aristotle, who liked "unity" (and generally didn't approve of subplots) would have recommended maintaining a consistent mood. Several recent bestsellers follow his advice. Consider Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In all these novels, the suspense is pretty much nonstop.
However, we are under no obligation to follow the recommendations of Aristotle, who was certainly brilliant but not known for his fiction. Shakespeare, who can also be held up as an icon, broke the rule all the time. Sometimes a bit of humor sprinkled into a serious story relieves the tension. You may feel that your story has more depth when it evokes more than a single emotional response in your readers. So you may want to sprinkle some levity into your drama or mix some romance into your suspense. In a way this approach can give your characters (and hence the readers) something to hope for: a world in which tragedy does not dominate and there is time for laughter; a time in which danger does not threaten and there is time for love.
On the other hand, sometimes it can be in bad taste to have something light and witty right after something serious. There was an episode ("Life Support") of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine in which the A Story, which involved the excruciatingly slow death of a beloved character, was accompanied by a B story that was supposed to be funny but under the circumstances simply seemed offensive. Even those working on DS9 later admitted that the combination was a mistake.
Combining different moods will always take judgment -- that's art! -- and no matter what you do, you probably won't please everyone. I believe it helps to be aware of this, and ask how the readers will feel reading a scene in Story B, given the mood you have created in Story A.
Which Story Is A? In most novels, it is clear which story is the main plot and which story is the subplot -- but by "most," I mean more than fifty percent, not almost one hundred percent. Sometimes you will start a novel intending for a particular storyline to be story A, but then a subplot becomes so interesting that it takes over. In a way it is an embarrassment of riches to have competing storylines. I think one reason this happens is because the protagonist in story A can be such a straight arrow that he or she is no longer that interesting and lacks story potential, whereas the less perfect characters actually have more interesting personalities.
If you discover that this is happening while you are writing, you should at least determine why it is happening. Perhaps Story B is based on a personal experience and so is simply easier to write. Perhaps something is blocking your from writing what you mean to be Story A and you need to take steps to unblock yourself. Perhaps your novel will simply be different than what you originally expected or planned (they often are).
If you find yourself still drawn to the characters and events of Story B, even when you're not having trouble with Story A, then perhaps you have discovered that your next book will be about the characters in Story B.
Timing. Do all the storylines begin at the same time? Do they all end around the same time? This is where you will need to review and perhaps tinker with your different stories, so that their emotional high points appear when you want them to in relation to everything else in your narrative. You may even need to create some delaying tactics if one is resolving too quickly. There's a lovely example from Deep Space Nine when the writers realized in the final set of episodes that the storyline involving Gul Dukat and Kai Winn was finishing too soon. The writers moved the characters off the stage by striking Dukat with blindness for a while so that the other storylines could catch up. Of course, stories A and B do not need to have simultaneous high points and low points -- and in some books where you are skipping between different time periods there is no "real simultaneity" -- except for how you arrange the pages (which is actually what matters anyway). Still, arranging the stories so that they fit together will make a difference to what your readers experience, so it is important.
Resolutions. When you have multiple storylines -- assuming that you cannot resolve them all at the same time -- you will need to decide the order in which you will resolve them. To do this you will need to consider both the emotional journey you wish to give to your readers as well as what order of resolution is logical as dictated by the parameters of your story. In The Lord of the Rings, the traveling hobbits only deal with the events of the Shire near the end of The Return of the King because they are not in the Shire until the end of that book.
Often the most important conflict is one of the last to be resolved, while what follows is literally known as anti-climactic. You generally want to push the most important resolution to very near the end, although the very end is often a lighter note (known as the tag in series television). Many detective stories end with the solution and then a page or two showing that life has returned to normal. Perhaps a tiny thread, forgotten by most of the readers, is tied up at the end.
Conclusion. Now that I have finished talking about ending your storylines, it's time to end this two-part article. Until next time!
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.