Monday, January 12, 2009

How Many is Too Many

Question of the day: About how many different plot lines do you feel you can juggle before a story gets tangled? Do you think these plot lines need to be clearly related to each other?

Continuing with exploring scenes and chapter structure, I pulled this question from the comments section because it's a great place to start. The answer, for me, is that I don't know that I have a concrete number, but let's talk through it and see where we come up...

I think there is a very fine line between having too few things going on and thus boring the reader and having too much going on, such that the reader is thinking, "Seriously? This is TOO dramatic; this sort of craziness doesn't have one ounce of reality in it." I remember reading a book this summer, by an author whom I love (but shall go nameless), and there were just too many things going on. It seemed totally implausible that every character would have such complete and total drama in his or her life, and as a reader, it was a little bit exhausting. I kept thinking, "Really? Can't one thing go right for someone??" At the same time, of course, we've all read books on the flip side: without enough drama, there simply isn't enough momentum to keep us flipping the pages. much is enough without going overboard? Well, when I think about TOML (not that this is a perfect example, and just to be clear, I never want anyone to think that I'm ever saying that my writing is without flaws!), there were four or five MAIN plot lines going on. 1) the arc of her going back in time; 2) her attempts to reconcile with her old boyfriend (and forget her old husband); 3) her friend's infertility; 4) her mother's reappearance in her life; 5) her various issues at work leading to a promotion. Then there were subplots (and actually, maybe #3 above is a subplot, though it did shape a lot of Jillian's behavior): her bosses marriage, her boyfriend's novel, a few others here and there. I think, in considering my first novel, there were also a similar amount of main plot lines: work, family, health, love, friendship. For me, this is about all I can juggle.

In fact, right now, I'm about 60 pages into HAPPIEST DAYS, and I actually think I might have too much going on. I'll reassess once I've written the complete draft, but a good way for me to gauge this is that, because I keep so much of my novel in my head, I sometimes lose track of a plot...I actually forget that I need to weave it in. And if I'm dropping plots, it's likely that there is one too many in the air. (Forgive the extended juggling metaphor.)

Do all the plots have to be tied to each other? I think, in some way, yes. Even if it's tangential, but if not, you're almost telling short stories that happen to be in a novel together, right? (This is just my opinion, and I'm definitely game to hear from people who disagree.) But when you write a novel, it's important to remember that you're asking readers to follow an arc: your characters start one place and end up another. And if you're going to throw in a plot line that has nothing to do with a character's evolution (even in a remote, tangential way), what's the point for the reader? I dunno, just my opinion.

So guys, I'm curious to hear how many plots you juggle when many is too many?


Anonymous said...

Hi Allison,

I completely agree that having too many plot lines can cause frustration and confusion in the reader (it's probably similar to how I feel when my husband clicks back and forth between what seem like dozens of sporting events!)

I'll just throw this thought out there, since I'm not an expert, but I wonder if authors who stir too much into the plot pot wouldn't be better served by increasing the conflict in fewer plot lines instead? I recently stumbled across a great book in the Writer's Digest series called "Plot and Structure" that demonstrates ways to pack your novel with conflict. I've found it very helpful. And when I go back and read breakout books like Harry Potter, I realize that every page usually contains conflict.

I know from your previous posts that you're also a big fan of conflict and it's just one of the elements that make your books such a great read.

Sarah Pekkanen

Eileen said...

I think Sarah gave a rock star answer.

One thing I try and consider is how each of the plot lines I have going complicates the other lines. If they are just hanging out there by themselves then they need to be dropped. To me it is the intermingling of problems that makes the story fun. This also increases the chances that I won't forget anything.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I definitely agree the interweaving and complication is better than simply having a large number of plots. The challenge with interweaving, of course, is ensuring everything gets wrapped up at the end.. unless it's left for the sequel of course.

I think the way you've broken things down in your post, Allison, shows how many plots an author can get away with. You've summed your novels as "work, family, health, love, friendship". One conflict for each important aspect of the character's life. Multiple family plots, for example, can probably often be combined, as they likely stem from the same cause.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

I'm late to reply to this but I just wanted to say that I thought your comment was very insightful - I totally agree. It's not about how many you have, it's how they weave into each other that makes them effective. Your comment made me pause and reflect on what I'm writing to ensure that I'm doing this properly. So thanks!