Perils of Multiple Plotlines

How to avoid common pitfalls

Today’s question: Perils of working with multiple plot lines or multiple POVs would be great?

After the posts on how I plot and structure, a reader wrote in with this question. Multiple plotlines are hard! The first time I wrote with strong multiple plotlines, it was a nontrivial thing to figure out.

For me, multiple POVs is a bit of a separate craft issue — multiple POVs on the same plotline is significantly easier for me than multiple plotlines from a single POV, for instance, and then there’s multiple POVs on multiple plotlines. So I think I’m going to split this post and do one on multiple POVs next week. Stay tuned!

Reader, you asked about perils of multiple plotlines, so let’s talk about a couple of things I’ve seen a lot or grappled with myself.

Peril #1: One Plotline Disappears from the Tension

One of the most common issues I’ve seen when beta’ing for people is for one plotline to kind of “disappear” for a large chunk of story. It reads to me like the author got caught up in whatever was more exciting at the time and let the other plotline go soft.

The tension needs to stay in both plotlines (or all three, or four, etc). Even if nothing’s happening on one of them at the moment, we should have the feeling that it’s still present, tense, and on the characters’ minds.

But as long as the characters don’t forget about the important secondary or tertiary things that are going on, the good news about multiple plotlines is that they can also keep a narrative from sagging. TV Tropes calls this “Two Lines, No Waiting,” when the multiple plotlines can interleave so the narrative isn’t left with any soft spots. My advice is to use them to your advantage in escalating. If one plotline is taking more time to develop, you can use the other to peg your pacing to, as long as you don’t forget about any of them.

Peril #2: The Plotlines Don’t Sufficiently Interact

Caveat: This is assuming Western novel storytelling conventions. Not all narrative conceits require this, and even within Western traditions you might be doing something different or experimental. But a lot of the time, your structure will be more emotionally satisfying for readers if the multiple plotlines affect each other.

This can happen throughout the book, each pushing the other forward and each escalating the other, such as through the way each plotline affects the characters. Or it can happen near the climax, as one plotline pushes the solution for the other one — or makes that solution collapse to cause a last-minute scramble.

Since we talked about Save the Cat last month, this is what that book refers to as “A and B stories cross.”

Peril #3: The Timelines of the Plotlines Are Hard to Juggle Within the Structure

Sometimes the timeline of one plotline is moving faster than the other. This can be tricky when you’re trying to have them hit their emotional climaxes with a timing that makes sense — maybe at the same time, or maybe in a way where one pours into the other.

Sometimes it’s necessary to figure out ways for one plotline to develop slower or quicker, adding or removing steps to the escalation. Some people do lengthy, fancy spreadsheets or timelines for this — mine aren’t very fancy, but sometimes I’ll do at least a little Excel scratch work to figure this out. Experiment to determine how detailed you need to get with the planning for your own writing process — this will help with Peril #1 as well.

Peril #4: It Can Be, Well, Hard.

For me, at least! Although almost every story will have more than one set of stakes, assuming we’re talking about a novel-length manuscript — whether those are character arcs, emotional versus physical stakes, etc — I find multiple plot throughlines to be a much different and harder thing. In fact, I think I’d say I find doing two more than twice as complicated as doing one.

That is to say, Reader, don’t get discouraged. Depending on where your strengths as a writer lie, it can mean a steep craft hill to climb, so if it’s rough, allow yourself the time and effort to do that leveling up. If you can write one plotline, I’m betting you can successfully write more than one, even if it’s a bit more of a grind than you’re used to in order to get there.