Six impossible things

Proliferating subplots

Kin asked: Any thoughts on how to manage a proliferation of sub-plots and POV’s?

Lots. Which is why I’m making this a post rather than a quick answer to a comment.

The first thing you need to look at is why you have all those viewpoint characters and subplots in the first place, which is another way of asking, does your story really need all these elements? If you planned them all in right from the start, that’s one thing; if they showed up later, that’s a different thing. I’m not dealing with this now, because it’s not actually what you asked about and I’m trying to be useful here, but really, unless you know how you ended up with this snake’s nest, organizing it is only going to be a temporary fix.

However, what you asked about is managing your snakes…er, subplots and viewpoint characters. So I will begin with the subplots, because in my experience, that is the first thing one needs to tackle when in a mid-to-late book tangle. (If you’re prewriting or still very early in the manuscript, I’d start with the characters.)

A tangled mess of subplots in mid-book is usually the result of a) losing track of where all of them are, where you intended them to go, and/or how you intended them to get there, or b) not having figured out any of those things in advance. Losing track is usually a sign of allowing yourself to spin off too many subplots and/or being overconfident about your ability to remember everything you intended vs. everything you have actually written. Not figuring thing out may be a symptom of inadequate upfront planning, or it may be because you followed shiny distracting ideas that bloomed into subplots without you really realizing it, or it may be part of your process (i.e., you are the sort of writer who charges ahead until things are in a horrible tangle, and only in the mid-book sits down to figure out where things are going. Or you’re a pantser who has written him/herself into a hopeless tangle and is now stuck).

Either way, you really have two separate questions: 1) How do you untangle the mess you are currently in? and 2) How do you keep it from happening again?

The fundamental answer is the same in both cases: You need to know what your plotlines are, who’s involved in them, and where you are in the development of each plotline. If you’re a pantser, you have probably been relying on your memory and/or frequent reviewing of what you’ve written. This works as long as the number and complexity of your plotlines does not exceed the capacity of your memory. If and when it does, you have three choices: abandon the book (because you can’t bear to let go of any of the subplots, but you can’t buy more memory capacity for your brain the way you can for your computer), cut subplots until you get back down to the point where your memory can keep track of all of them, or make a chart. (Planners need to do the same thing, after they dig out their pre-writing notes, but they don’t resist the idea as much.)

What kind of chart you make depends on exactly what is tangling up your plotlines. If your problem is making sure that George is not putting in an appearance at the ball (for the romantic subplot) at the same time he is supposed to be getting kidnapped from the bar on the other side of town (for an action subplot), you probably want something that focuses on individual characters’ timelines; if the main problem is that you’ve lost track of whether the kidnappers were working for the master necromancer or whether that was the grave robbers (and which group is responsible for the zombie plague), you want something that ultimately focuses on the progression of the subplots.

The very first thing, though, is to figure out what your plotlines are.

So make a list. If you are trying to sort out a mid-book tangle, go back to the start of the manuscript and take notes on what plotlines and subplots you actually have in the story so far (“Romance between George and Jennifer” “Stopping drug lord” “Getting magic license” “Rooting out corruption in mage’s guild” “Finding Aunt Ida’s lost dog”). Not what you planned; what you’ve actually written. Under each subplot, note the key developments that have happened, in the order they’ve happened. (George and Jennifer attend department meeting. George runs into Jennifer two days later by accident; asks her to have coffee. Jennifer rescues George from kidnap attempt.) Again, not what you plan to have happen; just what you’ve actually written.

If you are trying to prevent a tangle, you make this same set of lists as you go. That is, you stop at the end of every scene or chapter or two and note down any new subplots and any key developments under existing subplots. What you’re doing is untangling the story into individual plot sequences, so you can see that the way each plotline develops makes sense, without all the distracting clutter of all the other plotlines, characters, and questions about how often and in what order you should touch base with different subplots.

The lists allow you to see what you’ve done so far and rethink it. If your “main plotline” about stopping the drug lord has all of three developments in the first half of the manuscript, but “Jennifer’s family subplot” has sixteen, you may need to add more drug lord developments, cut some of the family developments, or rethink what your book is really about. You can also see whether the development of each plotline makes sense if you’re just looking at that one plot. And you can often see which subplots should really be spun off into a side-story, because they are super fascinating, but they don’t really belong in this book.

Some writers don’t need or want any more than this. If you do, you proceed to your next-stage method of choice. Mine is usually the color-coded sticky-note system I’ve talked about before, but depending on the exactly reason for the tangle, I’ve also laid out calendars and timelines, done charts of subplot developments showing what’s happening both on- and off-stage in each chapter, and diagrammed my characters’ relationships to each other and various plots and subplots and intentions. The point is to tease out useful information about what you have done, so that you can get everything and everyone to where they’re going to need to be by the end of each plotline (and the book).

Once you know where you are, you can list key developments that you haven’t written yet. You can go all the way to the wrap-up for each subplot, if you want and/or if you know exactly what needs to happen for that plotline – in fact, you probably want to do that (if you aren’t pantsing), so that you can see which plotlines you’re sure of and which ones are still under development. You can then develop the under-done subplots to whatever degree of planning you need, and continue on.

Juggling viewpoints works a bit differently; I’ll talk about that next post.

21 Comments
  1. I’ve never tried writing multiple POVs. The most I’ve even thought about was 2 alternating POVs, but even then, I ultimately went back to one. They sure are tough to juggle! I admire authors who can do it well.

    • My current project has two alternating POVs; the characters are currently in different places, so it’s not too difficult to show their separate adventures, but I suspect it’s going to get more complicated once they’re in the same place for the climax!

  2. Ok – my snake problem was… partially planned but ended up with more snakes then I expected. 😛 The problem is the main character in my story is an OBJECT, not a person. So the plot is essentially a timeline of how dozens of people interact with the McGuffin until its complete. Simply listing: Person A did X, Person B did Y, and so on was deadly dull. So of course each person had to be allowed their personal goals and dreams to color the story while doing their “day job” of working on the McGuffin.

    And… now every single bit character with a line wants to get THEIR STORY finished and wrapped up. Obviously that just can’t happen – some stories need to wander off and finish off-stage. Not anywhere close to a memory issue yet (excellent memory + notes) but the projected word count is way over budget.

    Colored Post-it notes – definitely. And… figure out a few dozen different ways to write someone out of a story without leaving loose threads everywhere.

    • OK, I probably should have started with the character/viewpoint post first, then, because one of the first things I was going to mention was the tendency of characters to try and wrap the story around themselves and their interests the minute you give them a viewpoint.

      Your description sounds to me as if what you have is a collection of short stories tied together by the movement of your central object through the lives of each story’s protagonist. Unless the “object” is sentient and has agency (or develops sentience and agency at some mid-point), I don’t quite see how it can have a central story-problem, even if it undergoes changes at the hands it passes through. It’s easy to come up with ways it can be a problem in multiple stories, but that’s not the same thing.

      In any case, putting an object at the center of your story is going to exacerbate the character problem, because your reader-brain is looking for a main *character*, and will latch on to every POV you come up with as a possibility and then go haring off after that story.

      • Don’t worry, this post was very useful too! Step 1 to solving a problem is always to organize the mess. ^_^

        And in my story the “object” is an abstract idea of “the rise of animation”. So yeah, bunch of small stories interacting with tons of interconnection. Manged to slice several shorts out of the tale (and sell them!) but I really want to try and wrap the whole thing up in to a novel-sized story. (Possibly sequel or trilogy if required)

        • Oh – and I have “lead” POV’s that come back many times as the money person and/or the advising expert. But I just haven’t managed to stick ONLY to their POV because some of the more complex ideas are easier to explain from another perspective.

        • Fix-up.

          A collection of short stories continuing in a world and setting.

  3. Prerequisite to untangling subplots is understanding just what a subplot *is*. In one WIP, I have a party heading out to investigate a spatial-temporal rift and along the way encounter a group trapped in a loop/bubble of time, among other things. Are these “along the way” events considered subplots or just developments of the main plotline?

    • I have similar uncertainty about subplots. Is the friend’s machinations to get himself a promotion a thread in the plot of the main character’s efforts to get the boss fired/arrested, or a subplot in its own right? The one does contribute to the other, which implies a thread, but the motivations and stakes are different (if conveniently parallel), so…?

      I tend to think I don’t really do subplots, because I can always see a connection/contribution, but maybe that just means I don’t understand subplots.

    • I think this describes me; I understand what a subplot is, and once the subplots of a given story are listed for me, they make sense, but…I’m really good at finding connections and less good at putting things in discrete categories. It’s hard for me to separate a subplot from the main plot in anything longer than about five- to ten-thousand words (at which point there isn’t really much room for a subplot).
      So I don’t even know if I *have* subplot problems, because I wouldn’t see a subplot-in-progress until it smacked me in the face.
      Further complicating this, what would one call a sub-plot like thing that doesn’t necessarily advance any plot line, but atmosphere/characterization/humor/context? Can one have a sub-theme as opposed to subplots? For example, in the Kate and Cecy books, they pause whatever they’re doing to discuss fashion and color from time to time (“that rose-colored silk would suit you to perfection.”); I don’t know if it counts as a subplot because it doesn’t really drive any narrative, but it provides characterization, humor, and context, and it does influence some of the plot/subplots.

  4. I recall reading that when a beginning writer isn’t sure where the story goes next, they add another character. It gives the story new blood and impetus, and makes it *feel* as though they’re accomplishing something when all they’re doing is muddying up the waters.

    Clearly, it isn’t only beginning writers [cough*GRR Martin*] who fall prey to this.

  5. With your post-it notes system, what do you do with events that are significant for more than one plot line? Duplicate the note in multiple colors? Or does that not come up?

    • Depends on the story. In some books I’ve read the subplots and main plots are very separate. In others the overlap is a few lines in the scenes, not important enough to mess up outlines. And in some plots each and every event is significant to MULTIPLE plot-lines. (Looking at you Harry Potter) Obviously the post-it note method is highly YourMillageMayVary.

      If the scenes of your novel have tons of overlap perhaps post-its with the sticky flags to note subplot lines? Or another method would work better.

      • Different methods work for different plots and writers. It helps to code the sticky notes by event rather than by scene. One scene often has multiple plot points or events, but plot points are, by their nature, usually for one plot. Once in a while, you get something that affects multiple plotlines – “Jen rescues George from kidnappers” affects both the main action plot and the romance subplot – but until you get to the story climax, you don’t usually see much of that kind of crowding, and what there is, you can usually cope with by using markers or double-layering the sticky notes.

  6. Oh! I wonder if mine might be, too! My more recent comments disappeared into the ether, so I gave up trying. Here goes!

    • Oh, wow! Looks like my comments no longer disappear into the ether. That’s fantastic!

      Although the other person who was making this test – and to whom I replied with my own test – seems to have been scrubbed once again.

      : crosses fingers that this comment does not trigger the ether monster :

      • Nope, my comments work now too! The webmaster deleted that one (after telling me she was going to do so) because it was just a test comment to see if the problem was fixed.

      • If anybody else is having problems with their comments showing up, PLEASE email me so I can get it fixed. It seems that our spam trap is being a little aggressive; whitelisting people seems to work, but we can’t do that unless we know who to whitelist.

  7. I’ve been a fan ever since I first reading “Talking to Dragons” as a little girl, but I see that I happily have some catching up to do with your latest works. I’m going about recollecting the books I lost when my home flooded, and it made me have to ask you: is there any chance that the Enchanted Forest will make another appearance? Thanks for the great memories.

    • If you mean, will they be back in print, they’ve never been out of print. If you mean, will I write a fifth book, probably not any time soon.

    • I love your username!

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