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Monday, February 22, 2021

How Plotlines add Dimension

When writing a novel, you need to use more than one plotline. In fact, most successful books need at least three. If they only have one or two the story may feel flat, bloated, or repetitive, because the writer doesn't have enough variety to draw from. But it's sometimes not enough to just pick any three plotlines--there are different types, and there are reasons there are different types. By picking three different types, you give your story satisfying dimension.

Think about it. When we talk about dimension in life, we are usually talking about three dimensions: height, width, and depth. We aren't talking about height, height, and width. Or width, width, and depth. We are talking about at least three different measurements. Sometimes time is added in--a fourth measurement--and theoretically, we could add more. But until there are at least three measurements, the object is only two dimensional (aka, flat).

There are at least six different types of plotlines:

Protagonist's External:

This is the type of plotline most of us recognize first. It's the "outer journey" of the protagonist. It's Star Lord saving the galaxy. Or Dr. Faustus making a deal with the devil for unlimited knowledge. Or the man who is trying to win over the love of his life. Often this contains the main antagonist, so that there is a kind of a back and forth between the protagonist and antagonist.

Protagonist's Internal:

The second-most recognized plotline. This is the "inner journey" of the protagonist--how the protagonist arcs (changes or remains steadfast) over the course of the story. This means that the antagonist is the self--it might be a flaw, weakness, or misbelief that the hero has to overcome, to become who she is meant to be. This is where the "inner demons" lie and fight back.

Relationship/B Story:

Depending on who you listen to, some teach that the first two plotlines are part of the "main story" or "A story." Then there is a secondary story, the "B story." As professionals like Blake Snyder and Robert McKee state, this is most often a relationship plotline. Usually this is about the protagonist and a love interest, but it might be the protagonist and a best friend, sibling, mentor, parent, or even rival (the Influence Character). It's a plotline about how a relationship develops, grows, or changes.

The reason the relationship plotline works so well, is because it fits between the protagonist's external and internal plotlines. It's not as extreme and far-reaching as the external plotline, but it's not as intimate and deep as the internal plotline. Therefore it adds dimension.

Personally, I don't think the B story always needs to be a relationship. But it needs to be something that is not as big and broad as the protagonist's external journey, and not as deep as the internal plotline. I think that is a more accurate understanding of it. However, most B stories are relationship plotlines, and even if they aren't, almost all stories still have a relationship plotline. 

But this is a conversation that can get into semantics--what we call what, how we define things, and where we choose to slice and dice story elements.


From there, in many stories, there is conflict within the society and world the protagonist inhabits. Luke Skywalker may have his own external and internal plotlines, but beyond him, is a whole war between the Rebels and the Empire. In Catching Fire, Katniss is pinned against tributes, but there is a plot playing out between the Capitol and the Districts. And least you think this is for only epic genres, in a Hallmark movie, a local business or tradition might be at stake. Keep in mind that any group or collective can function as a society. For example, a conflict between students and teachers could fit this type.

The society/world plotline is broader than the protagonist's external plotline because it has more participants and bigger groups. They may intersect in significant ways, but the society/world plotline is "above" it. 

Influence Character:

Other than the protagonist, there is usually a key, influential character. This is pretty much always who the protagonist is in a relationship with in the B story. This character adds dimension because, unlike the protagonist, it is someone we are observing, more or less, from the outside. The audience isn't as close to them as the protagonist, but they aren't as opposed to them as the antagonist. This is a character whose power comes from influence--from influencing the protagonist and/or the A story (directly or indirectly). Because of this, the influence character may often have his or her own plotline--goals, hopes, fears, obstacles--through the story.

Undercurrent Story:

This is a plotline of my own definition, because I haven’t seen it defined anywhere else, though it has been written many times. The undercurrent story is a plotline that happens “under” the story the audience is seeing. Rowling uses this in every Harry Potter book. For example, in Deathly Hallows, the surface story focuses on finding and destroying Horcruxes, while the undercurrent plotline is about the Deathly Hallows. In Goblet of Fire, the surface story is about the Tri-wizard Tournament, but the undercurrent plotline is Barty Crouch Jr. trying to resurrect Voldemort. Another famous example is Sixth Sense, where Dr. Malcom discovers he’s been dead the whole time.  

The undercurrent story is a plotline that usually touches the surface several times before fully surfacing at the end, changing the context of prior incidences (this may result in a twist). It may touch and influence other plotlines, but we don’t have a clear understanding of it until later. It plays out, to some degree, off page, but progresses alongside the main story (it's not just backstory). Because of the nature of the undercurrent plotline, it should be added as a fourth or fifth (or sixth) type of plotline–it won’t give the writer enough to work with as a third. It nevertheless adds dimension. 

To learn more about undercurrents, you can check out my earlier posts on them here and here

We have now defined six different types of plotlines. Most successful stories (other than maybe short stories) have at least 3 - 4 different types. The most common three are the first three, but not all stories have all of them. For example, not all protagonists actually have an internal plotline. In such cases, theoretically, a different plotline type needs to be added. So maybe the story has the external plotline, relationship plotline, and society/world plotline, instead.

If you start with an external plotline and only add more and more internal plotlines, the story may feel off and repetitive: height, height, width, for example.

Once you've decided on at least 3 - 4 types, you may add and layer more plotlines that somehow fit between them--similar to what we did with the B story. You may have another internal plotline that is not as powerful, far-reaching, nor as personal as the main internal plotline. Or you may have another relationship plotline that is further removed by a degree. Or you may have another secondary character plotline, that is not as important as the influential character's, but still affects the protagonist and story. But you need at least 3 - 4 "main" plotlines of different types for a story to have dimension. 

This taps into how some epic novels are structured. You may have a protagonist who has an external plotline, an internal plotline, and be a participant in a society plotline. Then you may also have secondary characters who each have their own external, internal, and society plotlines. And they also may have different relationship plotlines, with different Influence Characters. (Confused yet?)

As with all writing guidelines, I'm sure there are exceptions that exist to all these things. For example, it's not strictly impossible to write a story that doesn't have three different types, just that such stories add more of the same--adding "length" as opposed to "depth." Harder to pull off and less likely to be as satisfying. Sometimes as writers, we mistakenly think that the more of the same we add to a story, the more powerful that element, but in reality, it's often contrasting that element that results in more power. 


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