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So I saw Over Plotting My Story this morning, and I thought "Am I making the same mistake?" If so I'd rather fix it soon than later. I then did a search for multiple plot branches and found Are subplots necessary for a successful story?. I'm not sure if what I'm doing falls into either of these, but I thought it would be good to check.

In one of the stories I'm working on (I'm terrible at focusing on one thing) there are three plot branches. These aren't subplots, but rather interconnected plots with their own casts working towards their own ends. As the story progresses the three come into conflict with each other until at the very end all three converge in the climax. In the beginning characters are reacting within their own branch based on the actions of the other branches, but ultimately aren't interacting directly outside their own branch.

The way I'm structuring this is by giving each branch a collection of chapters that form into an arc before moving on to another branch. When outlining scenes, chapters, and arcs I explicitly write out what each are suppose to accomplish so I don't have fluff subplots, or character interactions that neither advance the story, nor advance a characterization. Every scene is meant to produce a certain feel and add to either the plot or help define characters, events, or settings (showing instead of telling).

My question is then "is this okay?"

P.S. I mention that the branches come into conflict with each other, however each branch has its own internal conflict as well. Also, each branch is distinct in tone, and the source of the conflict.

P.P.S. A bit more information. The first branch has the chief protagonist who, at first appearance is on a cliche fantasy quest. The second has the chief antagonist and the ultimate objective of the protagonist (though the protagonist doesn't know it). However, the the chief antagonist, isn't actually in conflict with protagonist but rather using her as an unwitting proxy against the "bad guy" in the third branch, who has wronged the chief antagonist. This second villainous sort (who is actually introduced as a paragon of good) is working her own proxy games to halt the machinations of the chief antagonist. The first and second branchs have two MCs each, and the third has one. The protagonist is included in that count.

It should also be pointed out that no one is actually evil, and everyone is motivated by love, but the way they go about actualizing their vision of how things should be leads to some very twisted events.

  • Yes, this is OK. As you say, it makes for great conflict and depth. – DPT May 4 '18 at 14:44
  • If I got it right, you have 3 POVs and want to alternate them in complete arcs (whereas contemporary tradition is alternate them every chapter), and asking if that's Ok? – Alexander May 4 '18 at 18:06
  • No. That is entirely wrong. – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 18:09
  • @Nero gris I would appreciate if you further clarify your question. It's perfectly fine to have multiple POVs with each character going through his/her own subplot. The question (imho) is how to organize them well. – Alexander May 4 '18 at 18:14
  • Sorry for the terse reply. I was getting frustrated trying to figure out how to answer so settled on that. The question does not have anything to do with reference frames, nor subplots. – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 18:26
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The way I'm structuring this is by giving each branch a collection of chapters that form into an arc before moving on to another branch. When outlining scenes, chapters, and arcs I explicitly write out what each are suppose to accomplish so I don't have fluff subplots, or character interactions that neither advance the story, nor advance a characterization. Every scene is meant to produce a certain feel and add to either the plot or help define characters, events, or settings (showing instead of telling).

It sounds like you have planned the structure in advance, and are aware of potential pitfalls so you are taking extra care to be clear with the various goals and characters within your parallel plotlines (I would not use the term "branching" as that implies a Choose Your Own Adventure or interactive narrative where some paths are taken while others are not, but I understand that you mean the 3 groups come together and diverge throughout the course of the story).

Planning ahead is the best you can possibly do until you actually write it. Then you will be looking at tonal shift, narrative dissonance, personality creep, and character redundancy – issues that may not be evident until you have more of the parts substantially written. Then you can actually read how well they segue or juxtapose to the next segment.

I had a long overlapping saga with several redundant moments that unintentionally recycled near-identical set-up and resolutions. I'd intended it as recurring theme or "echo", but as I blocked the scene again I realized it wasn't adding anything new. The subsequent scenes needed to evolve so they became more emotionally complex (even if these characters haven't seen it before, the reader has), or just do it once with the right character.

You mention giving each "plot" several chapters at a time. I suggest allowing each story segment some "closure", with a full arc that ties up the immediate loose ends – at least in the early part of the novel. Save the cliffhangers and characters wrestling with big unresolved questions for later in the story once the reader is more invested. If one plot breaks off on a cliffhanger then I read 3 chapters about a second team, but come back to learn the first group of characters are still in that same predicament, I'm going to get confused about the passage of time when I am away from a group. Eventually you can make the segments tighter and even go back to redo a scene from another perspective (Rashomon-style), but in the early part of the narrative I think it will be stronger to give each plot an emotional resolution before putting it on the shelf.

In my saga, I have two distant locations with two complete sets of characters. I've added in the passage of time while the narrative is "away" – when I return to earlier characters time has progressed by several days or weeks, but more or less on the emotional trajectory where they left off. Since the two plots run in parallel without much crossover or communication, I have the freedom to choose how and when to cut. It didn't end up cutting into evenly balanced segments like I'd hoped, but the cuts felt logical. I ended up with a primary plot with more action and a secondary plot with more pondering and soul-searching, but giving each segment its due and tying up the immediate loose ends made each transition feel like it was "ready".

You won't know for sure that your readers will follow all of your story until you get feedback from beta readers, but don't under-estimate how your readers are already multitasking in real life, and will be able to follow multiple storylines with varied relationships, tones, and motives. It's the smaller plot details, the disposable MacGuffins and emotional conflicts that drive a plot from point to point that the reader will forget – all the more reason to bring each segment to a resolution so these details won't need to be remembered while that story is suspended.

My advice: Tell each segment in its turn without distraction from the other parts. Rather than a 3-ring circus with simultaneous performances competing for attention, let each take the spotlight and be the only important story at that moment. Your readers should have no problem following the leap from story to story, and it will feel less like a gimmick and more like a natural narrative flow.

EDIT: (from comments)

The stories should interlock, eventually there are connecting threads between them all, but I mean more of bringing the emotional moment to a rest or plateau, so we aren't nagged by that hanging emotion when the focus should turn to the new section. It's more a "feeling" that that segment is complete, rather than an endless series of TO BE CONTINUED cliffhangers competing for attention as the "most important thing right now" to keep the reader on the edge of their seat

I'm suggesting to NOT put cliffhangers in the first few rounds. Instead let those early rounds feel like emotionally complete stories, so the first time we step away from them they are not lingering and competing for attention ("Wait, I have another 68 pages and 2 other plots before I know if she survived falling out the window???") Do that too early and the reader will say "so what". But take these characters through a couple of "complete" story turns, and it is more like returning to an old friend

  • Thanks for the advise. For the most part I'm on target it seems, but there is one point I'd ask you to clearify. Could you be clearer on your last point? In the arc I just finished, for instance, its mostly about the drama within the cast of the second plot line. However, while that is the substance of it, we learn things about the protagonist and two of the cast members are going around asking for aid in fending off the protagonist. However the protagonist is absent and unaware of whats going on in that plot line. She is, in fact, in a completely different location. This okay? – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 17:23
  • Hard to say from here. The stories should interlock, eventually there are connecting threads between them all, but I mean more of bringing the emotional moment to a rest or plateau, so we aren't nagged by that hanging emotion when the focus should turn to the new section. It's more a "feeling" that that segment is complete, rather than an endless series of TO BE CONTINUED cliffhangers competing for attention as the "most important thing right now" to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.... Later, sure, as the pace picks up, there will be more emotional overlap and bleed. – wetcircuit May 4 '18 at 17:48
  • Ah, I see. No there is little overlap at the beginning since each plot line is doing its own thing at the moment, though the latter two are aware of whats going on and doing their own thing based on what others are doing, though they aren't interacting directly. Not yet. Chapters end in cliff hangers (to encourage continued reading), but arcs do not. They end in a tone of foreboding, but aside from the over arcing plot, I don't leave loose ends. – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 18:02
  • Of course the devil is in the details. I'm suggesting to NOT put cliffhangers in the first few rounds. Instead let those early rounds feel like emotionally complete stories, so the first time we step away from them they are not lingering and competing for attention ("Wait, I have another 68 pages and 2 other plots before I know if she survived falling out the window???") Do that too early and the reader will say "so what". But take these characters through a couple of "complete" story turns, and it is more like returning to an old friend, than "Tune In Next Week To Find Out...!" – wetcircuit May 4 '18 at 18:13
  • Would you mind updating your answer with this information so I can mark it as the answer? – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 18:28
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If you had a larger number of plot branches, I would caution you about it, and suggest perhaps trimming one or two of them down. I can think of a few stories with 5-6 plot branches, or even more, and they tend to go quite badly:

  • Volume 4 of RWBY splits its time over six different branches (Ruby, Weiss, Blake, Yang, Oscar, and the villains) and only gradually merges them over the course of Volume 5. A lot of people complained that the pacing was too slow and not enough was happening, as having so many branches slowed things right down.
  • Durarara!! probably has about ten different branches (and at least 30-40 main characters) by the penultimate series, at which point I started to lose track of them all.
  • Mekaku City Actors didn't have time to explain all the branches properly, and as a result I was very, very confused by the time it ended.

Three branches, however, sounds much more manageable, both for you as a writer and for the reader. So I would say: go for it! The interactions between the branches will provide a lot of potential for conflict and intrigue - Durarara!! was one of my favourite anime for this very reason, before it all got confusing.

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    Thank you for the examples. Yeah, Durarara!! was pretty awesome, but figuring out what was going on. . .no thank you. – Nero gris May 4 '18 at 15:46

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