My Freelance Editing Services
Read about me
My writing tips organized by topic.
Read what others have said about me and my blog.
Connect with me on social media.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Working with Multiple Plot Lines--Is There a Specific Way?





Anonymous asked: I absolutely loved your guide for outlining! How can I apply that when I have numerous plot lines, though? Thanks!



Hey thanks! I’m glad it was helpful.

Well, that outlining post actually has two parts, so I’m not sure which one you saw or if you saw both, but here is what to outline and here is how to outline. The second one does touch a little bit on that.

But maybe you want something more detailed, which can be a little trickier to nail down, and it sort of depends on the story structure you are going for.

Most stories have like a primary, secondary, tertiary (and onward) plot line.

But another story structure seems to have multiple, separate stories linked together by a theme or topic or event, and the narrative goes back and forth between each story.

In most stories, the primary plot line will be the obvious one--the main conflict with the main antagonist.

The secondary plot line usually relates to an inner struggle (if the primary isn’t already a person vs. self conflict) and plays into the story’s theme. It’s usually the main character’s arc--how they change, personally. Usually in the secondary plot line, the character overcomes a personal struggle which then enables them to overcome the antagonist of the primary plot line, or vice versa.




For example, in Moana, the primary conflict relates to Maui having stolen the heart of Tafiti which is destroying the islands, and for the primary plot line, Moana has to get Maui, pass Te Ka, and restore the heart to save her island.

But the story’s secondary plot revolves around Moana’s inner struggle--of being drawn to the sea, when she’s supposed to find happiness and peace on the island she’s already on. As a result, she struggles within herself about who she is. She tries to believe what she’s been told: that all she needs is on her island. But despite how she tries, she can’t find true fulfillment there (and wishes she could be “the perfect daughter”).

During the course of the story, she learns about her ancestors, does what they do, and the climax of the secondary plot line happens after Maui leaves, and she both understands and remembers who she is.


Because she now understands who she is, and what that knowledge gives her, she is then able to understand how to “defeat” Te Ka--who is really Tafiti--and Tafiti has lost her sense of identity--who she is, because her heart was taken.

So often the secondary plot’s climax happens near the primary plot’s climax, which cements the theme into place.

In this post, author Amanda Rawson Hill talks about how you can use theme to come up with subplots, which might also relate to what you are asking (as I think you can apply it to other plot lines, rather than just subplots), and might be an approach that helps you.


The outer and inner journeys usually play off each other. The resolution of one often leads to the resolution of the other. Either the inner saves the outer, or the outer saves the inner (because of a realization the character has in the process of whichever comes first).

But still, not all stories are like that, it’s just an approach that might be helpful. I will argue that most powerful stories, do that, though.

There might other plot lines still. For example, what about a romantic plot line? What if (for sake of discussion) Moana had a love interest? That might have its own conflicts, and affect the other plot lines.

The thing with nailing this down, is that there are so many right ways you can handle various plot lines and so many story structures, that it’s hard for me to say “THIS is how you do it!” (though I’m sure you don’t expect me to say that either).



For example, in a different story structure, the different plot lines might be referring to different character lines, such as in the Lord of the Rings movies. Frodo is the primary protagonist, and his main conflict involves taking the Ring to Mordor. However, Aragorn has his own plot line and journey. And later, so does Merry and Pippin. You could even map out Gollum as having a plot line if you wanted.

Then within each of those, you could say there are primary and secondary plot lines and maybe even more. Frodo’s secondary is that he has to struggle with the power of the Ring within himself. Aragorn struggles with being king and is reluctant to take the crown--that has its own rising action and climax itself.

It could go on and on, so it’s a slippery thing to try to package in one way. It’s helpful to consider what story structure you are writing and maybe look at other stories within that structure to see what and how they handled it.

I will say, that with different plot lines, you almost always need some variety. For example, if the primary conflict is a person vs. person conflict, you probably don’t want to make all the other plot lines a person vs. person conflict. It loses power and can become monotonous. This is one reason why an outer journey and and inner journey is so great to work with. I’d also recommend considering the different kinds of conflicts that exist: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. god, and trying to see if you can use a different one than your primary plot line.

Another similar approach is to look at the emotional draws your audience wants. Maybe they’d appreciate a romantic plot line. Or maybe they would like a mystery plot line. Maybe you are writing in a fantasy setting, and they’d like a plot line that relates to the setting, so they can experience that wonder with it (like a person vs. nature conflict). Or maybe they’d like more humor, so you come up with a humorous plot line. In this approach, it sort of depends on what emotions you want your story to evoke--the emotional experience you want for the audience.


As for the process of actually mapping and outlining it out--for what scene of what plot line happens when--it’s hard to pinpoint, because again, there are different story structures, and it also depends on what kind of effect you want. If it’s more of a subplot, the plot line may not actually go through the entire length of the story--it might end early or start late.

Like the primary plot line, the other plot lines may have their own beginnings, inciting incidents, rising actions, midpoints, climaxes, and denouements. But they may be briefer or more condensed or only implied.

However, often the more you can keep the climaxes of each line close together, the more powerful the ending--as long as it doesn’t get too gaudy. It’s a balancing act. If each climax is complicated for example, having them all close together might be too much.

Like I said, while there are wrong ways to do it, there are a lot of right ways to do it. The main thing, in my opinion, is to balance it out so there is some variety and the pacing doesn’t drag in one direction. If you’ve had a lot of suspense in the primary line, but you also have a comedy line, you might want to switch into that comedy line after several scenes of suspense so the audience can get some variety and a break.

Usually it’s a good idea if what is happening in one plot line affects another (like the Moana example), but some stories are successful without plot lines really affecting each other or crossing over

So . . . I’m not sure that I answered your question to your satisfaction, but I hope that something in there is helpful to you! The real answer is, it depends on your story, but that you should aim for balance and variety, while paying attention to pacing, and that it’s usually good if the plot lines affect one another and the outcomes.

Have a writing question? You can tweet me, send a message through Facebook, "ask" me on Tumblr, or email me at SeptemberCFawkes[at]gmail[dot]com

0 comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments :)