Manage Multiple Plotlines

Photo by Nina Matthews

I’m about a decade late to the party, but I’ve recently discovered The West Wing on Netflix, and it has quickly overtaken my life. The writing is sharp, the characters are great, and Sam Seaborn is challenging Chris Traeger for the title of Rob Lowe’s greatest contribution to pop culture.

One thing I’ve noticed in watching the show: you REALLY have to pay attention to keep track of everything that’s happening. If you take a bathroom break without pausing, by the time you come back, China has fired missiles at Taiwan, the Vice President has removed his name from a bill he feels passionately about, and the sexual tension between Josh and Donna has increased ever so slightly.

It raises the question: how many plots does it take to make you go crazy?

How to Manage Multiple Plot Lines

In typical TV storyline fare, a single episode will usually have two plot lines, referred to as the A-story and the B-story. Occasionally there will be a third line, known as the C-story, and if the writers are feeling particularly ambitious that day, they might even squeeze a D-story in there. Often times, if you miss the C- and D-stories, you won’t really have missed anything until about ten episodes later when that action becomes important.

This happens in literature as well, as anyone who has read any of the Song of Ice and Fire series can attest. A consequence of having an army of characters is that you will have a lot of plot lines as well. If you find yourself in that situation, here are a few ways to manage those plot lines.

1. Make the characters relevant to each other’s plots.

If you have multiple characters entwined in the same plot line, that cleans up the action and makes it much easier for the reader to follow what’s going on.

2. Introduce breaks when the character point of view changes.

If you’re writing from a third person omniscient standpoint, you can give the reader insight into any character’s head that you please. If you take that approach, then make sure it’s clear when the point of view changes, whether it’s an act break or the start of a new chapter. The less work you make for your reader, the longer they’ll stick with you to see what’s coming next.

3. Make the plots relevant to each other.

In addition to making the characters significant to each other’s story lines, try weaving the plots together so they come to a head at the climax of your story. Maybe the resolution to one plot leads directly to the climax of another plot, or all of the plots meet at one point and suddenly your reader is hit with the significance of everything that has happened in the previous 200-500 pages.

Balance is key when writing multiple plot lines as well. Your readers will not look favorably upon your work if you introduce a character’s conflict, and then don’t come back to it for 200 pages. Readers want to come along on the journey, so don’t leave them out in the cold.

If you’re going to create a new plot line, commit to it, and give it significance. If you’re just writing an extra one for the sake of writing it, it’s probably best left out

What are some of your favorite works with multiple running plot lines?

PRACTICE

In a few sentences, summarize two subplots for your work in progress (or a new story, if you don’t have a work in progress).

Post your subplot summaries, along with a brief summary of your story’s main plot, in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback on the subplot summaries of a few other writers.

Good luck!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.