thrillers · writing tips

How to write multiple storylines

How do you write a novel with multiple story lines?  Today author Chuck Bowie is here with a guest post on how to knit separate story lines into a cohesive whole, without disrupting the flow of each narrative, and at the same time intensifying the themes of your novel.

Carrying Multiple Arcs Across a Novel

chuck bowie, helena fairfaxGood guy acquires a quest. Good guy meets bad guy. Good guy surmounts trials and all’s well that ends well. How many of us have read (and enjoyed) a great written journey that went along those lines? I wish I had a brain that was wired in such a manner. Life for a writer would be so much simpler, if we could just follow a path—the Yellow Brick Road, for example—to the happy ending.

But no. We’re not programmed to make our own lives that easy.

There must be trouble and strife, right? We get to page twelve and this little girl appears. Who invited her to the party? And why is she here? Ah. She brings with her an amazing tale. And, while that tale is amazing and completely out of the blue, it seems, ‘way down the road, to be tied to your original plotline. Who knew?

So. There you are with a great, straightforward story, you’ve made it to page twelve, and a peripherally-related story comes along. Do you a) save it for another day, another story? b) ignore it; perhaps accusing it of trying to detract you from your original purpose? Or, do you c) begin a new chapter in the hope that this little girl will make your original plot richer, with loose ends tied up in the loveliest way?

In my suspense-thriller, Three Wrongs, my protagonist, Sean Donovan, is a thief for hire. As the novel begins, he’s in Romania and he’s been hired to steal a chalice. While he’s there, he stumbles across a government scam and asks himself: “How can I get a bit of the money that seems to be lying around?” He is a thief, after all. But someone dies who isn’t supposed to and he becomes intent on addressing this unfair tragedy.

In subsequent chapters, Donovan steals other things, but that is part of the original storyline arc. The complications ensue when he begins to notice the impact his thefts are having on people he historically wouldn’t have cared about. This throws him off his game and he begins to chase down quests—the other arcs—that he never would have cared about previously. He’s beginning to change. It’s in the secondary arcs that we see this change and growth.

As a writer, it is critical to be absolutely confident that these ancillary arcs complement the original plot, or else, why include them? They can be as interesting as can be, but if they don’t push the narrative along, the reader will grow impatient with this extraneous driftwood while reading the novel, and downright resentful when they see loose ends at the denouement.

It’s like knitting. A single strand of wool will not make a sweater. The strand needs to become entwined with other, similar strands, to accomplish the task. ‘Similar’ is the operative word. The colours and textures really do need to be consistent with the main arc, in order that the story is told well.

How many primary arcs can one novel sustain? In Three Wrongs, I had clearly a single, primary arc. My man Donovan commits three thefts, and then attempts to undo them. Again, straightforward. In book two of the series: AMACAT, the arcs aren’t as clean. Donovan’s friend is murdered and, in the end, Donovan attempts to resolve it. However, more time is spent on a completely different quest. He must get an acquaintance out of a jam. In my second novel the distinction between which is the primary arc blurs. In this case, care must be taken to keep the reader well-informed, chapter-by-chapter, as to which arc they are getting caught up on.

There are tricks to keep the reader current on each arc storyline. The beginning of every chapter has to spell out which arc it is and which characters will be profiled. And as the chapter unfolds, exposition, dialogue and description all have to mean something to the evolution of the main story.

By novel’s end, each arc has to be resolved. Every character’s role, good or evil, has to be played out to a satisfactory conclusion. Taking it even farther, each arc has to complement and strengthen the primary narrative arc. The reader has to be left with the feeling that they understand what happened. In the best knitting of arcs, the reader is left feeling that they gathered up numerous events into a cohesive story that made sense. Each mini story, each arc, did its job to push the story from quest to journey to crisis, to its conclusion. All roads lead to Rome, and all of a story’s arcs lead to a satisfactory ending.

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 chuck bowie, helena fairfax

Chuck Bowie is an author with MuseItUp Publishing. His eBook Three Wrongs is now available from the Muse Bookstore and other major etailers. He’s just finishing the second in the series Donovan: Thief For Hire. It’s called AMACAT, an acronym for the three arcs of the story.

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Thanks for the great post, Chuck.

  It’s not easy switiching between story arcs without disorientating the reader.  I recently read Christina Dyer Hickey’s Last Train to Liguria, which switches alternately from a present-day storylline to one set in the second world war.  It was a great read, and kept me gripped throughout.

Do you have any questions or comments for Chuck?  Have you read any novels with several storylines that you can recommend?  If you’re a writer, have you ever attempted such a novel?  Please let us know in the comments.  We’d love to hear from you!

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27 thoughts on “How to write multiple storylines

    1. Thanks for coming by, Victoria. I enjoyed Chuck’s post. This isn’t an aspect of writing I’ve thought about much before, but it’s given me more understanding of just how difficult it is for a writer to sustain several storylines.

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  1. Excellent article. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking of the Game of Throne series which strains the “primary narrative arc” to the limit, or at least it seems to me. Or perhaps it doesn’t. This series is so complex the author relies on long lists of characters in Houses at the end to help the reader keep it all straight. Great great stuff but it faded away for me finally in book 5. I wrote one novel 32 years ago about three boys growing up in the fifties. One boy was somewhat more important than the others and the boys did interact, which helped with the primary narrative arc, so I hope you don’t have three separate unrelated stories. It will be published by Crossroad Press this year. Chuck’s article is really helpful. It’s easy to be led astray by new characters and plot elements.

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    1. Hi John, great comment. Someone else commented on one of my blog posts recently about the complex strands in Game of Thrones (or Song of Ice and Fire, as the book is called). I’ve seen the TV series, but haven’t read the book yet. Thanks for mentioning it. It’s a great example of interweaving narrative strands

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  2. Hey, Helena. Fascinating post, Chuck. Despite the fact, I’m a plotter, I have to confess, I don’t analyze like this. LOL Perhaps I should. I would think this would be easier for a plotter than a pantser to do. I mean even with plotting, stuff comes up, characters take off, and sometimes you have to go back and add something in. So, Chuck, are you a plotter or pantser?It seems to me we have many more pantsers than plotters at MIU?

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    1. Hi Marsha, I always thought of myself as a pantser, but maybe deep down I do have the plot outlined in my mind – it’s just not written down formally on post it notes or card files. I find it hard to work with the plot outlined formally, because psychologically it makes me feel tied. The plot is laid out in my mind, however.
      I hope I’m making sense! Thanks for your interesting comment.

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  3. Hi, Marsharwest.
    I am a plotter who will very quickly switch to a pantser the second something weird and wonderful jumps in front of me. I once wrote a novel (never published) where I literally got to page 80 and these two girls did indeed jump in, unannounced and uninvited. They took over the plot and, as soon as I finish my suspense thriller series, I have to write about them. Thanks for asking.

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      1. Hi, Lorrie.
        Here’s a thought: what if you were daunted by having to ‘carry’ a single plotline for 300 or more pages? That sounds scary to me! It’s quite entertaining to carry three, less-intimidating plotlines, although it’s still a challenge to weave them all together at the end.
        Thanks for your observation.

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  4. This is a timely article for me because I am writing my third mystery and I really, really really want a ghost n it. I am struggling to find a way that hasn’t already been done for him to fit into the main story arc. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi, J.Q. Rose (May I call you J.Q.?)
      These aren’t real suggestions, just thoughts to spark your imagination. I was thinking that a haunted thumb drive would be cool. Every time the protagonist opened it, a new message appeared. ‘Ghosts in the machine’.
      I also thought that a ghost might appear on the subway/bus and only the protagonist might see/chat with them. (They died on the vehicle.)
      Thanks for reading Helena’s blog.

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      1. Chuck, yes you may call me J.Q., or Jan, or Janet, or Jannie…Thanks for your suggestions. Love the haunted thumb drive idea. I just saw an interview with a medium who says he knows of a haunted doll–never thought about inanimate objects.
        Helena, I like that scene with the friend appearing. That actually happened to me after my mother died. She came to me in a dream and told me everything would be okay. It was very comforting for me to see her healthy and happy.

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      2. Hey, Jan.
        Help yourself to the idea, or to a variation on it. The notion of a haunted thumb drive (or a variation of that) leaves the door wide open to have conversations with an entity that knows something about the protagonist’s environment that they don’t. It makes for a nice vehicle to push the plot along.
        I don’t write about ghosts, but I love to read about ’em!

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    2. I am intrigued by the idea of the ghost, JQ! In the novel I’m writing now, I have one of the characters “speak” to his dead friend. It’s not really a ghost – just that the hero imagines his friend is there. In the scene, he goes into a pub they used to frequent, and sits in the same seat. Suddenly his friend is in the seat next to him, and they have a conversation. Maybe you could have your ghost appear in a similar way? I’m looking forward to reading your story!

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  5. JQ it’s so strange that you should say your mother appeared in a dream. I had a very similar dream, where my son told me he was OK. Like you, I felt a real sense of comfort at the time. It was a curious experience.
    And now I can’t contain my British ignorance any longer. Just what exactly is a thumb drive??

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      1. Aah now I see. Thanks for your explanation. It’s what we commonly call a memory stick here in the UK. Strange how these differences in terminology arise in the same language! A haunted memory stick is a great idea.

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  6. Hey, Helena. Thanks for inviting me to guest blog. I’d like to come back, sometime. My second book drops Oct 17th, bringing with it more writing tricks, processes and how-tos. I’d love to chat once again. By the way, your tweety photos of the moors in late summer and winter are marvelous!

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