How To Manage Multiple Plot Lines Without Going Crazy

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!

About 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.

Join the Community!

If this post helped you improve at the craft, consider subscribing. It’s fast, free, and you’ll make our day:

You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts.

  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

    In my book Greybo: A Dwarven Legend I’ve got three major plots

    Series:

    The book introduces elements of the series storyline.

    Story:

    The book tells of the struggles of a melancholy dwarf to overcome the past.

    Story in a Story:

    The book tells an intricate story that is just as deep that is a source of conflict and reflection for the dwarf, pushing him to face his past.

    The tricky part is interweaving the plot lines. I’ve found that symbols and metaphors transcend the plot lines, so coming up with a handful of them that really to 2 or more of the plot lines has been my challenge.

    One of my biggest issues is that the transition into the “story within a story” is really hard to make.

    When finished, this will be my first book. I feel like I’ve taken on large challenges that most beginning writers would not have taken on with a first novel. But, I feel to grow as a writer, we must challenge ourselves.

    You can read more at http://vozey.wordpress.com/

    • Winnie

      “Eye of the Mare” implies a dominating matriarchal figure. (or is my imagination running away with me?) The other title, “Greybo, a Dwarvan Legend”, harks back to Tolkiens’ book.
      I hope this helps.

      • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

        I would say the later would be more accurate. It has roots in his work, but I’ve also taken my own direction.

        Eye of the Mare or Eye of the Black Horse or Night of the Mare. I hate picking titles.

        When I first thought of it as a symbol, I decide to make a prototype book cover by robbing various artists on the internet.

        Thanks for your input. It helps. Let me know what the cover makes you think and whether you like it. That would help, too.

        • Winnie

          This cover certainly catches the eye. And makes me wonder what the book could be about.

          • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ James Hall

            I suppose that is good. The fire deters any thought that it is like The Black Stallion. Haha

            But then again, I doubt it screams fantasy either.

            Maybe if I add a de-emphasized and robed character to its back, still keeping the horse’s eye the focal point, I could achieve everything I want with it.

            Is it bad when the back cover intro doesn’t have anything to do with the front cover, or is misleading at best? I mean the horse does appear in the story, just not for quite some time.

            Anyway, I’m only a fourth done with my novel, I’ve got lots more to write, so I wonder why I’m worrying about this in the first place!

            Thanks for your feedback. I really appreciate it.

  • Giulia Esposito

    I have the plot, and subplot. Of course, they overlap.

    The plot tells the story of one character’s life now a turf war has ended, thanks to his rather ruthless efforts and actions. The subplot is the story of his sister falling in love with her brother’s enemy, who wants my MC dead.

  • Carol Kalmes

    Main plot: Daughter and father haven’t gotten along since childhood. Daughter is now turning 30 and wants nothing to do with him. Father never understood how he became so estranged from his daughter and tries to make amends.

    Subplot: Father helps daughter move across country. They encounter another young lady and her young daughter. The father befriends this young duo, perhaps a little too much.

    Subplot: After moving, the daughter meets the man of her dreams. He comes from a broken home and yearns for a father figure. Could the daughter’s estranged father become his father figure?

    Does the father’s new relationship with the young lady and daughter that he met lead to an affair? Does his daughter see the relationship between her father and this mother/daughter as a relationship she should have had with her father and she envies her father all the more?

    Does her new boyfriend’s past of a broken home and unstable childhood lead her to understand her father’s caring ways or does it make the boyfriend a character who cannot forget his past and his anger and he takes it out on her? Does her father come to her rescue then, proving his love for his daughter?

    I see many possible story lines with these subplots.

    • Winnie

      You’ve exploited all the possibilities these sub-plots have to offer. Isn’t the trick to ask Why, When, Who, How, etc?

  • Winnie

    Maryna Melnick, returning home after working in Europe for a few years, finds her domineering father, the reason she left home in the first place, waiting to control her life again.
    At her new job with a group of enthusiasts who restore old airplanes, she befriends Lance Grady, their unofficial test pilot.
    The pride of their fleet, an old Ford Trimotor, crashes in a neighbouring country while on a testing flight. Whilst earlier undergoing a routine maintenance overhaul, Solomon Villa, the other partner controlling the company, had tinkered with the engines. But instead of Lance taking her up for the test flight, one of their other pilots had been given the job.
    What puzzles everybody is the twenty-odd young passengers aboard who were also killed. (Human trafficking.)
    In the end Solomon Villa’s links with Maryna’s father, which had resulted in Maryna being expelled by European immigration authorities and returned to her father’s custody, are revealed..

  • Pingback: This Week on Facebook | Lalien Cilliers()

  • Maggi

    The plot:

    Tiana and Lairke have much in common. They were both born in the last month of the 4th Age, they have the same black hair and blue/green eyes.

    But Tiana is a peasant.

    And Lairke is a prince.

    When Tiana’s past is revealed, they find that their lives have been intertwined for much longer than they imagined.

    Together, they set out to discover a secret which will change their lives — one which could bring down the kingdom.

    Subplot: When the odyssey of the two young people put the kingdom at risk, Lairke’s older brother Forge — heir to the throne — is faced with an insurmountable decision. Save his country? Or save his brother?

    Subplot: Believing that Lairke and Tiana had become rebels who, knowing their past, could wreak havoc on the capitol city of Bergkvist, King Stolt hires one known as the Archer, a treacherous man from a shady people with an even shadier past. He held the secret to the art of the Black Arrows, and if Lairke and Tiana truly had uncovered the long-hidden secrets of their birth, the Black Arrows alone could stop them.

    Subplot: Thrad, Captain of the Guard of Bergkvist, has a wife at home. She is pregnant with their first child after many years of wishing for a baby. When the King orders him and his squadron to follow Forge to the Fords of Ahlstrom where a battle may await, *spoilers* he must leave his sickly wife carrying a baby who was almost full-term.

    *amateur writer!!* (I mean, obviously x) But ehh, I’m doing my best xD

  • Pingback: Book Chick City | Reviewing Urban Fantasy & Romance | #NaNoWriMo 2013: How Do You Curb Your Inner Editor? + Today’s Links: Outlining & Plotting()

  • Pingback: NaNoWriMo 2013: How do you curb your inner editor?()

  • Victoria Anne Marie

    PLOT:

    Sauvignon wakes up in a dream world called Illusionate without any memories. It’s up to her and friends to discover her past which will ultimately save Illusionate.

    SUB PLOTS:

    Her friend and eventual love interest Tourniquet is watching out for Sauvignon. He also needs to regain his memories.

    Octavia is sent to the by the Dream Doctor to lead her in the right direction. Her plan is stalled by Brian but she returns later in the story to encourage Sauvignon.

    The Dream Doctor wants his daughter Sauvignon home and as a soul, helps her journey to save Illusionate even after his death.

    Brian, the villian, wants to be the Dream Doctor, and became so by manipulation, and to get rid of the line. To ultimately rule, then destroy Illusionate.

  • Alan Dingwall

    I stumbled upon this post because I was looking for some help with my plot lines. I’m not necessarily writing a novel though, instead I’m writing a screenplay which is a 13 part series so I have a few more plot lines than usual. It consists of 2 main plot points on which actually leads to the murderer and the one about the murderer. Also some plot lines lead to new plot lines as the series moves forward.

    MAIN PLOT:

    Someone plants the gun that was used to kill Yuki in Markus’ bed room and Jason sets out to find out who the real murderer is, but there are 7 different suspects who could it be?

    MAIN PLOT 2:

    When Markus is in prison, Jason begins to discover that his live in house maid Gabrielle is harboring a secret and sets out to discover what it is.

    SUB-PLOTS:

    A: Markus begins to get beaten in jail, but soon makes a new friend and sets out to find out exactly who he is.

    B: Lynsay and Frank begin to have relationship issues which ultimately leads to Lynsay asking for a divorce.

    C: Before the divorce Frank was having an affair with Mercedes which later leads to him being a suspect for the murder of Yuki.

    D: Shiori begins to find pictures of Frank around the house and tries to solve the mystery as to why they are there; However she soon discovers that he is in fact her half brother and that she was adopted. She also discovers that he and Emiko had a fling and that they are harboring another secret (Koichi is actually Franks son).

    E: Koichi begins to use drugs; However after much misuse of these drugs he is admitted to Rehab.