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Monday, June 24, 2024

Writing & Structuring Multiple Plotlines (with Visuals)

Writing multiple plotlines can sound difficult and daunting. How can you keep the storylines straight? And relevant to each other? How do you handle all the moving pieces and subplots? 

One of your biggest helps for writing such a story is understanding how to structure it, which is what this article is all about. And it may be a relief to hear that you've likely already written with multiple plotlines . . . now you are probably just adding more than you are used to . . . 

The 6 Types of Plotlines

Most stories have at least three types of plotlines, and there are six different types in total.

External--this is the character's outer journey. The character has a concrete goal, encounters an external antagonist, and struggles with the conflict to get the goal.

Internal--this is the character's inner journey. The character has an abstract want, and in pursuing that, completes a character arc. The antagonist is the self.

Relationship--this is a relationship journey. The character either aims to draw close to or increase distance from another person (or maintain the relationship as is). The antagonistic force is what is upsetting that. How it is resolved completes a relationship arc.

Society/World--this is an external journey with collectives. A group is in conflict with another group, or the world itself. For example, in Star Wars, the Rebel Alliance is in conflict with the Galactic Empire.

Influence Character--Other than the protagonist, there is usually a key, influential character. In this plotline, we are often viewing this character's journey (more or less) from the outside. While I continue to debate whether or not to call this a plotline type, I usually leave it in, because Dramatica considers it its own thing.

Undercurrent--This is a plotline that happens "under" the story the audience sees, such as a passive mystery. It usually touches the surface several times before fully surfacing at the end, changing the context of prior incidences. It may touch and influence other plotlines throughout, but we don’t have a clear understanding of it until later. 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 type.

You can learn more about these types here.

Now, for a story to have dimension, you need at least three different types. Without that, the story will likely feel flat. 

I'm not saying a story has never been successfully done with only two types (or one type), but it's less likely to work and be satisfying (and it will probably be short (or otherwise, repetitious)). Usually, we want at least three different types, and once we have that, we can add more if we want--more of the same types or other types.

By far, the most common combination for the three dominating plotlines, are external, internal, and relationship, with the protagonist being the lead of all three. But that's not the only option. You could have an external, relationship, and society/world plotline (like Indiana Jones does), or an external, internal, and society/world. And you could even split the three dominating between cast members, which you might would do in an ensemble (like The Umbrella Academy).

Commonly, the external and internal plotlines weave together to make what others call the "A Story."

While the relationship plotline makes up what they call the "B Story"--though technically the B Story doesn't have to be a relationship. (Just some writing community jargon to be aware of.)

From there, other plotlines are usually more minor ("C Story," "D Story," "E Story" . . . I think you get the idea).

Sets of Plotlines: Storylines

You may also have sets of plotlines, which, for the duration of this article, I'm going to refer to as "storylines." This is when it can be helpful to look at the plotlines in relation to character.

For example, in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (cause they made some changes from the books), Frodo has his own set of external, internal, and relationship plotlines, but so does Aragorn, with his journey to be king and be with Arwen.

Frodo has a storyline. And Aragorn has a storyline. These are the two dominating storylines.

The Fellowship also breaks down into more. Merry and Pippin have their own external, internal, and relationship journeys (though to a lesser degree), and so does Gimli. Eowyn, Arwen, and Smeagol are other notable characters who get their own storylines, though again to a lesser degree. 

In The Lord of the Rings, all of the storylines ultimately connect into a bigger society plotline, where Sauron and his forces are the antagonistic collective. This is fairly common. However, I want to also acknowledge that you can have storylines that don't do that (which I'll touch on below).

I also want to acknowledge that one plotline can essentially be shared between different characters. Frodo and Sam share the same external journey. However, Sam doesn't share Frodo's internal journey. 

If this makes your head spin, I wouldn't stress about it too much, as it will likely come together for you as you move forward, but I did want to mention these points.

Lengths of Plotlines: Throughlines & Subplots

In addition to all that, there are also different lengths of plotlines. I've categorized these as "throughlines" and "subplots" (though not everyone may define these the way I have).

Throughlines are plotlines that run from the beginning (Act I) to the end (Act III). The protagonist's external and internal plotlines are almost always throughlines. The protagonist has an internal want that he tries to fulfill through external goals, this makes up the main plot. The story ends when his want has been satisfied, or changed, or abandoned (and specifically how that happens and which outcome it is, will depend on the character arc). 

In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants to save others and survive. This shows up in her volunteering to take Prim's place and her goal to win the Games. When she's successful, the story ends, and both the external and internal plotlines, which started in Act I, are completed in Act III (. . . until they are put in jeopardy again in the sequel).

Throughlines run from beginning to end

"Subplots" is a term I hesitate to use, because it does mean different things to different people, but I don't have another term for what I need so . . . in this post, when I say "subplot," I'm referring to a plotline that doesn't run through the whole story. It may begin in the middle (Act II) and run to the end (Act III), or it may begin in Act I, and end in Act I, or begin in Act II and end in Act II. Basically, it's a plotline that runs through one or two acts, or on occasion, maybe even less than an act, but it doesn't run from beginning to end.

Some others use "subplot" to mean any minor plotline, whether or not it runs through the whole story . . . I did play around with making up a different term for what I need, but they just sounded weird to me.

An example of a subplot (according to this article) would be a relationship plotline that starts in Act II and ends in Act III, such as Joe and 22 in Pixar's Soul. They meet each other in the middle and complete their relationship journey at the end.

Subplots run through one or two acts

Check: Is Your Plotline a PLOT line?

At this point, I feel it's important to take a pit stop and have you check that your plotlines are indeed plot lines. Just because you have external things happening from beginning to end, or a relationship that gets showcased through two acts, or societies that are standoffish to each other, doesn't mean you have a plot for those things.

In order for it to be a plot, it needs at minimum these four things:

- An objective (a want/goal)

- An antagonist (something in the way of, or rather, opposing that objective)

- Conflict (these forces actually clash in a struggle)

- Consequences (the outcome of the conflict matters because it changes the future)

If it doesn't have those, it may be interesting for a time, but it's not really a plot.

Do yourself a huge favor and put those things in place. It will save you massive headaches and rewrites later.

Other than those four things, the next most important element to have in a plotline is plot turns.

Plot Turns

A plot turn is also called a "plot point" or a "turning point," so we have three terms for the same element (don't you love terminology in the writing community?). It turns the direction of the story. The story was going one way, and then information is revealed or an action is taken and the story is now going a new way.

I like to use the metaphor of a railroad to explain it. Simplistically speaking, your protagonist is a train engine pursuing an objective, on a railroad. The tracks lay down a pathway, a trajectory, to get there. A plot turn (or plot point or turning point) is like that train track that switches the direction of the train. The character was on trajectory A, but is now on trajectory B. 

You can learn more about plot points here.

In 3-Act structure, there are four major turning points, one for each quarter of the story. They make up these "climactic" peaks:

Depending on what structural approach you use, they may have different names. We are going to call the first peak "Plot Point 1," the second peak the "midpoint," the third peak "Plot Point 2," and the final peak the "climax."

If you use Save the Cat!, these are known as the following . . . 

Plot Point 1 = "Break into Two"

Midpoint = Midpoint

Plot Point 2 = "All is Lost"

Climax = the high point of "Finale."

If you use The Hero's Journey, these are known as the following . . . 

Plot Point 1 = "Crossing the Threshold"

Midpoint = . . . actually, this peak isn't labeled in The Hero's Journey, so . . . yeah.

Plot Point 2 = "The Ordeal"

Climax = "The Resurrection"

And other approaches flesh this all out differently. But just know this is the most common basic structure--there should be a major plot turn every quarter of the story. 

. . . this is, of course, for the main plotline, but it should also almost always be the case for any throughlines as well.

These major plot points are going to be major scenes. Some in the writing community like to call them "tentpole scenes," because they hold up the story. Everything else is the fabric in between. Everything else works as the falling action or rising action between these tentpoles (simplistically speaking--we could break this all down more, but let's not do that).

Another metaphor that can be helpful (which I hesitate to include, because mixing metaphors is rarely a good idea) is to think of the major plot points as "destinations," and the scenes in between as the "journeys" to those destinations (this is a concept I learned from Dramatica).

From there, we have a few ways to handle plotlines and plot points.

Overlapping Plotlines & Plot Points

It's common to have plotlines and plot points overlap. This is when the "journeys" and "destinations" happen in the same scenes (though their outcomes may be drastically different).

Because the vast majority of stories include the protagonist's internal plotline as well as her external plotline, these two almost always overlap. The character tries to satisfy an abstract want (internal) by pursuing a concrete goal (external). As antagonists challenge the protagonist, how she chooses to respond makes up the internal journey (the character arc). And when a big plot turn happens externally, it's also often a big moment internally because it alters how the character responds (generally speaking).

So, essentially, what happens externally impacts the character internally, and vice versa, almost constantly. (And you normally shouldn't be trying to write an internal journey that has no connection to the external happenings.)

A relationship plotline can also overlap, which usually means the relationship characters are nearly always together, and the major external turns are happening at the same time as the major relationship turns. Meaning, they're at least happening in the same scenes.

Three overlapping plotlines

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo's external, internal, and relationship plotlines overlap for almost the whole story. Sam is right there with him most of the time. The "journeys" overlap, and often so do the "destinations."

The climax of Frodo's external plotline is also the climax of his internal plotline and relationship plotline. They all happen in the same scene. When Frodo collapses, Sam carries him the rest of the way to Mount Doom--this major moment (known as "The Grand Gesture") is the climax of the relationship plotline, while arriving at Mount Doom to throw the Ring in, is the climax of the external plotline. It's also the climax of the internal plotline, because this is the peak test for Frodo where he must choose whether or not to throw the Ring in, and complete his character arc.

Yes, you could argue that they do happen in a sequence--first the collapse, then the refusal to throw the Ring, then the Ring falling in, thanks to Smeagol. But they happen in nearly the same moment.

It is possible, though, to literally have them happen in the exact same moment. In Revenge of the Sith, the climax of the external, internal, and relationship plotlines all happen in the exact same moment: Anakin refuses to accept loss (internal) as he jumps at Obi-Wan who cuts him down (relationship and external).

It's not necessarily inherently better to have it one way or another, but they can create a different effect.

You can also, in this sense, have storylines that largely overlap.

Sam's storyline also largely overlaps with Frodo's, but he experiences their adventure differently than Frodo. He wants to complete the external goal without Smeagol, while Frodo wants him to be their guide. Sam doesn't really have an internal plot line and doesn't deeply understand or empathize with the temptation of the Ring. The whole time, he wants to be close to Frodo, but sometimes Frodo wants him gone. Same adventure, different impacts, different personal experiences.

You can also have plotlines, plot points, and storylines that don't line up.

Separate Plotlines & Plot Points

It's possible to write a story where the "journeys" and "destinations" don't align and don't happen in the same scenes. In fact, it's common to have parts where they overlap and parts where they are separate.

In contrast to Sam, Aragorn's storyline, especially in the second and third installments, does not overlap with Frodo's, and so none of his plotlines do either (other than they are both involved in the same societal conflict). Aragorn is essentially completely separate. His journeys and destinations happen in completely different scenes. And often, his relationship plotlines and plot points happen in separate scenes from his external ones. The Grand Gesture (which is actually carried out by Arwen) doesn't happen at the same time as Aragorn's climactic battle to save Middle-earth.

But let me give another example. In The Greatest Showman, P. T.'s external plotline is to successfully bring people entertainment (first through the circus and then through Jenny Lind) but his relationship plotline is with Charity, who has little to do with the circus or Jenny. His internal plotline is about seeking acceptance. The final major plot turn with the circus happens when it burns down. The climactic plot point of the internal journey happens when he drinks at a bar and comes to his senses--he doesn't need the world to accept him. The climactic turn of the relationship journey happens when he runs back to Charity to right things. These all happen in separate scenes, in separate moments.

It's technically possible to write a story where the external, relationship, and societal plotlines are all separate. 

It's also possible to write a book where each storyline is completely separate.

Character A has a separate storyline from Character B

The external, relationship, and societal plotlines may be separate

As mentioned already, it's also possible to have some parts that overlap and others parts that are separate. For example, you could have plotlines that share the "journey" but have different "destinations." Or they share the "destinations" but have different journeys.

Or anything in between.

Keeping Separate Lines Relevant

Now, if storylines and/or plotlines are indeed separate for the whole duration of the story, they still need to be somehow linked and relevant to each other--otherwise it doesn't make sense to have them in the same volume.

One way to do this is through theme. So, for example, let's say I have three storylines. Even if these characters never cross paths, their experiences may all relate to the theme of "destiny." One character may be excitedly seeking a fortuneteller to learn her destiny. Another may be trying to prove we create our own destinies. And another may be struggling against an inevitable fate. All different stories, but all connected to the topic of destiny.

More commonly, though, the storylines or plotlines will somehow connect into or influence each other. Frequently this is done through a societal plotline that sort of works as an "umbrella" for the others to fit under (or feed into).

In The Lord of the Rings, everyone is influencing (or being influenced by) the society/world plotline with Sauron. Aragorn's and Frodo's storylines (and arguably nearly everyone else's) feed into successfully defeating Sauron by defeating his forces. In Star Wars, every storyline influences or is influenced by the conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire.

It's possible, too, that they are all funneling into the main external plotline. In The Umbrella Academy (season one), all of the storylines and plotlines influence (or are influenced by) Five's external plotline of stopping the apocalypse--that is the dominating plotline. It is what glues everything together. Vanya, Cha Cha & Hazel, Diego, the Commission, everything relates to stopping (or not stopping) the apocalypse.

Timing Separate Plot Points, Plotlines, Storylines

A question that often comes up near here is, if you are working with separate plotlines and storylines, how do you know what needs to happen when? 

In story structure, it's common to use percentages as guidelines. Yes, some writers hate percentages, but they are the fastest, easiest way to explain when a key moment should happen in a story, so we'll use them. Frequently these major moments are broken down like this:

Plot Point 1--25%


Plot Point 2--75%

Climax--85 - 100% (I mean, we gotta leave room for some falling action)

But if you are working with separate lines, it can immediately become confusing. Does every plotline and storyline need these plot points? And if so, how do you time them? They can't all hit at the 25% mark.

First, if you are working with throughlines, then pretty much, yes, every plotline and storyline should have these major turns (there is always room for rule breaks, but generally speaking). If they are separate, that means you are creating different moments (scenes) for these.

As for the timing, if each Plot Point 1 happens in a separate scene, they obviously aren't going to all happen at the 25% mark. That's okay. The percentages are guidelines. And there are a couple of ways you can handle this.

Sequential: You can structure the story so that these happen one after another, like my Greatest Showman example. They don't even have to be directly after each other, but they are close enough. Another example would be in The X-Files: Fight the Future; the relationship midpoint literally can't happen in the same scene as the external plotline's midpoint--it wouldn't make sense. So the writers placed it a bit after the 50% mark, when it was most appropriate.

Stagger the plot points

In Quarters: Dramatica Theory offers a rule of thumb that I have always appreciated. When working with throughlines, you keep things in their appropriate quarters. For example, say we have two external throughlines that are totally separate--separate journeys and separate destinations. One is Character A's and the other is Character B's.

You don't get far into Character A's second quarter before completing Character B's first quarter. You could, theoretically, do all of Character A's first quarter, and then all of Character B's first quarter. But you don't get 37% into Character A's story when you've only gotten 15% into Character B's.

That's for throughlines.

And again, these are just guidelines--I'm not saying all successful stories have handled it in these ways, or that you can't handle it another way. But if you need help organizing things and want a surefire way to keep the structure satisfying, those are some helpful ideas or principles.

What I most commonly see is, the text alternating between the "journeys" (the climbs) and then having them hit the "destinations" (the peaks) sequentially.

Structuring Subplots

Okay, so keeping things in their separate quarters sounds great when you are working with throughlines . . . but what about those plotlines that aren't throughlines? What about, what I'm calling, "subplots"? 

Again, there are a couple of ways you handle them.

Option One: You simply structure the plotline (or storyline) as a one or two-act story. What this means is, it will have fewer major turning points than a throughline. If the plotline starts in Act II and ends in Act III (as often happens in relationship plotlines), then it has three major "peaks" or turns, not four. If it happens only in Act II, then it has two major peaks. If in Act I or Act III, then one.

These major turns can overlap with the throughlines' or be separate. 

Option Two: You "accordion" the plotline. You smoosh the four major turns (and journeys) into a shorter space. This means the subplot's peaks may not align closely with the dominating plotline's peaks, but it usually works out okay. . . . as long as we get rises, peaks, and falls happening. (If you are familiar with the differences between scene, sequence, and act, then in a sense, you are taking the subplot's "acts" and putting them in as sequences.)

There is always room for flexibility, but these two perspectives are consistently helpful for me.

On-Page or Off-Page?

If you have a lot of plotlines, not everything happening in them is going to show up on-page. I mean, you can say that regardless, but it's especially true when you have a lot of plotlines. That would be too much and too long and likely mess up pacing.

Generally speaking, the more important the plotline, the more of it should be on the page (or screen).

One of the things that makes a dominating plotline, a dominating plotline, is that it gets the lion's share of the word count. Frodo's external plotline gets more attention than Eowyn's. If Eowyn had more, it'd likely feel odd and unbalanced (or like she was trying to be the main character).

So, how do you decide which moments the audience needs to witness firsthand?

Well, in any plotline, the most important moments are the plot points. It's usually more important that the plot points are on the page, than the "journeys." After those major plot points, it's the medium-sized plot points that matter most (the inciting incident and pinch points). When you need to, you can fill in the "journeys" by implying what happened or using summary.

But as always, there is room for exceptions.

Basically, though, the less important the plotline, the less of it needs to be on the page, and its best, most important parts to put on the page, are usually its plot points. 

I'm sure there are other ways you can handle multiple plotlines, storylines, and subplots (and I can imagine a few atypical approaches)--this is all theory meant to help (and not hinder) your creative process. But with these principles, you should be well on your way to writing and structuring multiple plotlines.



Starting in one week, I will be a monthly guest on Apex Writers Group

They host multiple Zoom calls a week where they invite professionals to teach writers how to write better. They have had guests like best-selling authors Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn and The Stormlight Archives), James Dashner (The Maze Runner), Kevin J. Anderson (who writes in the Dune universe (and worked as a producer on the recent films), and Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game). They've also brought on Angela Ackerman (The Emotion Thesaurus), Joanna Penn (prolific writer and podcaster), Dave Chesson (owner of Kindleprenuer), and more. (I think you get the idea.)

As the name suggests, it's also a writing group, so there is a community element where you can connect with other writers online for writing sprints and virtual get-togethers (and sometimes participate in competitions). 

They also have recorded classes from New York Times best-selling writer David Farland that you get access to when you join. You can learn more or enroll by visiting their website.


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