Friday, October 23, 2009

Unraveling Competing Plot Lines

For many months now, whenever I work on the plotting problems of the JASPER novel, it seems no matter what question I answer, there are always other questions that remain unanswered. Usually, once you get to a certain point, you reach critical mass and things start coming together. One answer automatically suggests several other answers. Not so here. Why?

It turns out the cause was hiding in plain sight: I added plot twists when I was writing, to make the story richer and more interesting, and less predictable. However, these competing threads were never properly laid out, never planned in their entirety so they would work together over the course of the entire novel. Any one of them makes sense at any given point -- the point at which the half-baked plot idea was conceived and thrown into the mix. The result is competing plot lines, rather than complementary plot lines. Hence, the revision work has been a lot like a Greek hero fighting a multi-headed Greek monster -- knock off one attacker and another one strikes.


At least now I see the source of the confusion. To help resolve this, ONCE and FOR ALL, which is the only way stories ever get finished, I resorted to some basic plotting maneuvers. I separated out the distinct plot lines, wrote out a short list of the major events for each plot line, from the POV of whichever character was closest to each plot line (the originator of that thread of action), and then I considered what/how/if the various plot lines complement each other. In other words, I've been doing what I should have done at the outset.

This has helped tremendously. I'm not done with it yet but I've made good progress. This approach has helped simplify the story and clarify competing character goals ("competing" in the sense that they could belong to different stories).

So, when the confusion gets to be too much, here's a good rule of thumb: break it down to its constituent parts, and work with smaller, more focused pieces. Establish the priorities, favor whichever plot line presents itself as the main plot line, and work in the others in a way that is helpful. Don't try to be a hero and take everything on all at once when all you need to do is divide and conquer. Take things on in sequence, one at a time, and you'll make your way. Or, to put it another way, don't mistake a lemon for a lemming.

Hero: 1
Hydra: 0

Blessed be the conquerors who persevere,


P.S. By way of background, remember that I usually plan my stories in great detail. JASPER was one story that I didn't plan. I just jumped in, wanting to unfetter my creativity after many months of intense, constrained, directed effort on other novels. It was good to loosen up, but I'm paying for it now. Hopefully the repair work is about done, and I'll be able to rewrite and edit as needed to finish this gem of a story before the holidays.


Debra Young said...

Excellent advice, Adrian, and a while ago I realized I had the same problem with A Lamentation of Swans and did exactly that--narrowed it down and dropped the competing plot arcs. That helped, so now the hydra has become a three-armed cyclops. d:)

Wynn Bexton said...

Some interesting points here. My novel has several sub plots and I know when I do the final revisions I'll have to look carefully at them. Learned a few new things at the conference this weekend but also had a lot of stuff I already knew reinforced. It was all good.