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I've written about 15k words of my story now and the plot is developing nicely. Perhaps a bit too nicely.

I have about a dozen of named characters which all have something interesting to do in the next part of the story. They will separately add something uniquely to the plot. They all seem to go a separate own path and will cause a change in POV up to where they will connect again in some way. This doesn't feel bad, right now. But it seems really hard to do right. Currently I have like 4-5 story arcs running next to each other. All contributing to the theme and main plotline in some way. It also adds motivation to some of the characters which makes me believe they are important.

Should I consider this a good thing or should I try to cut story arcs for better overview? Is there a general rule for this kind of things?

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    One common, and maybe critical, aspect of a "gang drama" (as we might call this) is that the characters who have important arc usually meet each other in some way, sooner or later. They don't all have to meet at once, and they don't have to be friends, but usually they will somehow interact. Without that, why are they all in the same story? – Todd Wilcox May 30 '18 at 13:56
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    If you haven't, check out Way of Kings. All of the books in that series have multiple characters in different parts of the world doing different things. – Nathan Merrill May 30 '18 at 18:28
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    The first season of the TV series Heroes had several separate characters that would meet each other and then pass on doing their separate things. – hszmv May 30 '18 at 18:40
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    Wheel of time ran into the problem with this. While the breadth of the story required a lot of story arcs, it also required a lot of work to tie everything beach together. Several books were solely to resolve individual arcs that had gotten away from where the main story need to be – Thomo May 30 '18 at 22:29
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There is no general rule. I am currently reading a book that has half a dozen named characters, sometimes close to each other or even in the same location, sometimes far away from each other with the occasional point-of-view of someone mostly unrelated. The author is doing a great job of making sure that you know who is where at which point and how the other characters and their actions are influencing the current main character. There are also lots of other named characters that are playing minor roles, having maybe one or two chapters of their own before they are being reduced to a side-kick role in chapters of other characters.

But sometimes it feels as if the author is forgetting about one or the other character because it's been so long that you have read something about them. It's difficult to strike a good balance of making the story arcs relevant and playing them out in parallel while also making sure that every overall important character has something to do throughout the other smaller arcs. Or at least to make it not feel like you are forgetting some of those characters.

At the same time I have also read lots of books that are from the perspective of only one or maybe two characters. It's certainly more easy to make the reader not feel like you are forgetting a character.

But this reduces the interdependencies that you can explore in smaller story arcs.

If you feel like there are too many great story arcs you could think about making a series and exploring other characters and their stories in those stories instead of packing everything into one story. This obviously depends on the amount of stuff you have or are planning to have in the end and whether you like series or not. But there is no general easy way to say how many story arcs you can have.

  • I really like the interdependencies of the smaller story arcs, this is the exact reason I created them. I think it makes the details of the story less of a possible info dump. And gives me better pacing. I do not like to make a series though. I like having a proper ending. Of course I would keep the option of a sequel open but not a necessity. – Totumus Maximus May 30 '18 at 11:49
  • @TotumusMaximus In that case you should just keep eye out for the case that your readers feel like you are forgetting characters and you are fine. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 30 '18 at 11:50
  • @secespilus I feel like considering my next move in the story to be the largest challenge. Timely switches seem to be most important I suppose – Totumus Maximus May 30 '18 at 12:03
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If we take the prime example for multiple Story lines (A Song of Ice and Fire), it is possible. But if you do it wrong, it can do more damage to your story than anything else.

There is no general rule for these kind of things, but you have to consider, that this style could lead to some serious writing problems. You have to keep track over multiple arcs and POVs that you can get distracted easily.

In the end it is up to you and can be an interesting style for Storys, but mostly it depends on the opinion of your readers and your personal likings

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    The most common problem with this is: You could get stricken inside you own story. Too many plots let the author tend to let the author miss something. Maybe some characters get not enough time for their arcs, some minor characters get too less attention and get forgotten (especially if they are somewhat relevant to the story) ... there COULD be many problems. – Pawana May 30 '18 at 11:53
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    I like discussing so I always try to prod a bit deeper then I initially see. Your answers are definately helping me. So thank you :) – Totumus Maximus May 30 '18 at 12:22
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    Always welcome. Discussing opens the view to deeper things and more insight. ;) – Pawana May 30 '18 at 12:26
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    Martin is a wonderful story teller, and he did it better than anyone else, and even then it's still the number 1 thing I hate most about ASoIaF is how long I have to wait to see my favorite characters again, and my number 2 is how much mental brain power it takes to remember that this chapter is picking up where 4, or 5, or 6 chapters ago left off. And not just once, but every single chapter. – corsiKa May 30 '18 at 20:48
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    In addition to ASOIAF, Tom Clancy frequently does something like this in his books. Multiple story lines, with no obvious connection at the beginning, that end up on a "collision course" – Kevin May 31 '18 at 16:58
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There's nothing fundamentally wrong with having multiple story lines going on simultaneously. If done right, it can add depth to the story. Typically the reader expects these story lines to connect in SOME way, or, as Todd Wilcox said, why are they in the same story?

I'm trying to think of an example now, but I know I've read stories where there were two or more seemingly unconnected story lines, and then the author brings them together at some point and the reader says, "Oh! That's cool the way that all came together at the end."

I've seen others with only the slimmest of connections. I remember a movie I saw once where the only connection was the narrator saying "Smith was as different from Jones as day is from night ..." (I don't remember the actual names) and then proceeded to introduce a new story line that had nothing to do with the previous story line other than that they were both about spies.

Bear in mind that it is usually much harder for the reader to keep track of what's going on than it is for you as the writer. You have devoted many many hours to writing this story. You have an image of what is going on at all times firmly in your head. (Hopefully, anyway.) Maybe you have notes about who's who and what happens when. The reader is approaching the story cold. He has none of this. I often find when reading a novel that has more than 2 or 3 main characters that I have difficulty remembering who is who. Especially if I read a bit, put it down, and come back to it later. To the author, this book has been his life for months, maybe years. To the reader, it's something that occupies a few hours, maybe a day or two of his time.

My point being: What seems like manageable complexity to you as the writer may overwhelm the reader. Don't get carried away. Two or three story lines is good. Four or five is, I think, pushing it. It's certainly not impossible to make it work, but it's difficult.

  • Doesn't individual story arcs (however small or large they might be) make the 'side'characters more real? – Totumus Maximus May 30 '18 at 15:43
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    @TotumusMaximus Sure. And that's why they can be a good thing. But I think that if you overdo it, it just gets confusing to the reader. I'm not saying they're bad. Just ... balance. – Jay May 30 '18 at 18:57
  • @TotumusMaximus I would heavily caveat that. It's not always untrue, but my personal experience has been that too much focus on side characters is mostly a distraction. I got about 3/4 of the way through a popular book (can't remember which one rn) and gave up because every other chapter started with a two-page history of a side character who was then immediately murdered by the main character, never to be seen again. I'd recommend reading Timothy Zahn's Star Wars EU books for examples of side character plotlines done well. – thatgirldm May 30 '18 at 23:12
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The human mind is limited, and driven by attention. Attention is degraded by clutter, and improved by correlated emotion. For every individual there are different limits to how many facts one can keep straight over a given time.

No science on your specific question (how many plots is too many?) exists, but 7 is a go-to number when asking for the upper limit of items in working memory (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two ). Working memory is not neccessaryly where plot arcs need to reside, though. I remember as quite pleasant the experience of reading Urth of the New Sun and realizing at the end that i just witnessed the completion of an arc that i had completely (well...) forgotten about.

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But it seems really hard to do right.

That's hitting the nail on the head here.

There is no objectively superior answer here. This is a risk versus reward evalution.

If you take the hard route, the payoff might be bigger, but the chance of success decreases. If you take the easy route, the chance of success increases, but the payoff from succeeding will be lower.


Can it be done?

Yes. Forgoing the almost obvious Song Of Ice And Fire/Game Of Thrones example, another good (but less extreme) example is Firefly (the TV show).

Nine protagonists is not an easy amount to handle (comparatively, The Expanse makes do with a crew of 4 that still covers a lot of different personalities). This is noticeable in the pilot episode. It takes a significant amount of screen time for the characters to make each other's acquaintance; and even then 5 out of 9 characters already know each other (so they don't need explicit introductions) and we haven't even scratched more than the surface of anyone's personality.

However, the introductory phase succeeded, and this paid off hugely in the subsequent episodes:

  • There was enough backstory for enough characters that every episode could reveal something new; without it feeling like forced or filler plot.
  • There were a lot of possible interactions, thus allowing for a wide range of possible plots. The same plot, tackled by 3 randomly assigned characters, would be immensely different just by picking different characters.

I picked Firefly, because its downfall (cancellation after one season) is relevant here. When they aired the show, they skipped the pilot and started from episode 2.

For a simple plot with minimal characters, that could work. E.g. it doesn't take a new viewer long to understand the relationship of the characters in The Simpsons. You can start watching the Simpsons from pretty much any episode and understand the backstory in under 5 minutes.

But for Firefly, this was not the case. There was an intricate web of relationships between the characters, which the viewers simply were not aware of. They saw a bunch of people interacting with each other without much further explicit exposition.
As a result, the viewer rating tanked. The viewers lost interest in the complex story that didn't seem coherent to them.

The main thing to take away here is if you fail the introductory phase; it's going to be very hard to recover from that. You need to get it right.


So how to do the introductory phase?

You can't introduce every character at once. People's heads will explode and they will discard your story as too complicated. So let's say you first introduce A, B and C; but you keep Z (who is related to the plot but not as close to the core) out of sight for now. Let's assume they are all family that live together.

That's an issue. Z is part of the plot from the beginning, but simply not in focus. If you only start mentioning him in later chapters, it seems like he came out of nowhere, which makes your story seem less like a web of connections.
But if you mention Z from the beginning, then you're effectively introducing him. What gives?

The trick here is to downplay the character, and mention his existence but do so in a way that implies he is a minor character. Note that you can't do so explicitly, because then you're lying to the reader.

Okay, maybe a Game of Thrones reference anyway. Note that I'm referencing the show, not the books.

Sandor "The Hound" Clegane was initially known as only The Hound. We didn't really know him as a person. He wasn't a nuanced character. He was gruff, immediately recognizable (either by the helmet or the burn marks) and showed no real interest in the current protagonists. (1)
He is actually present in many scenes, but his presence was not required. The scenes would have worked if you swapped him out for any random guard.

But at some point, he becomes a major character. This happens when he leaves King's Landing. This is a break, which needs to change the viewer's perception of him to accept him as a major character. And this break is done quite clearly:

Fuck the king.

For someone who is the right hand of the monarchy, who has not only defended the king but has also actively crushed those who opposed the king, this statement is strong. It has nothing to do with the swearing, but it shows individuality and independence. (2)

This immediately elevates him from "that disfigured guard" to "that guy who publically renounces the king", which is a massive statement of character in a story like Game of Thrones'.

Some interesting sidenotes:

  • I don't always do it intentionally, but from this point on, I often refer to him as Sandor instead of The Hound. He's no longer playing the guard dog, so the name doesn't seem as applicable anymore. This wasn't a willful thing I chose to do, it happened without me realizing. I think that somewhat proves the point that my perception of the character dramatically shifted.
  • Other than his explicit introduction in the pilot episode, I don't even remember his presence in most scenes (before the "Fuck the king" scene). It's only when I rewatched the earlier episodes that I noticed how omnipresent he was. That also proves the point that he was there all along, I (as a viewer) failed to register him. The director did not hide him from me.
  • There are other character who were introduced later in the show and appeared out of nowhere (e.g. Daario, Missandei). I am considerably less invested in these characters, since they haven't yet proven to be relevant to the core plot.
    • Bloodraven was also introduced at a later stage, and has has less screentime or character development than Daario or Missandai. However, the story makes it explicitly known that he was there (behind the scenes) all along and was involved in the main plot (though we don't know exactly how), which makes him more relevant to the core plot and therefore makes me more invested in him.

(1) A similar thing happens to Sam in the Lord of the Rings. He's foisted onto Frodo's journey by Gandalf (unplanned), he addresses Frodo as "Mister Frodo", and he is horribly naive and lighthearted. These things all initially suggest that Sam is a minor character who is oversimplified and will not meaningfully contribute.
It is by design that both Frodo and the reader/viewer wrongly discard Sam as a sidekick, only to then realize he perseveres where Frodo fails. For example, whereas Sam's distrust of Gollum initially seemed like smallmindedness, his distrust ends up saving the plot.

(2) There were a few earlier scenes that set the stage for his break in character, e.g. when he saves Sansa from being raped. However, that is a hint, not a clear indication. To the viewer, he could still be motivated by wanting to protect the monarchy (since Sansa was betrothed to the king) rather than doing it out of a sense of justice.


To summarize

  • Only take on the job of many story arcs if you're going to put in the required effort into each and every one of them. Avoid half-assed arcs. The standard of quality must be held high if you're going to make the reader endure getting to know all these characters. Make it worthwhile in the end.
  • Introduce characters when they first appear.
  • Flesh out characters gradually. Don't do too many at the same time.
  • Do not omit characters that are not yet fleshed out. Simply downgrade them to a minor character (or even a background character) who can still be easily identified (like The Hound's face burn scar).
  • Rely on the reader to not bother with actively learning about minor characters. They focus on the major characters so that they do not become overburdened.
  • This enforces an implicit agreement between the writer and the reader. The reader needs to learn about the major characters, but can learn about the minor characters if they want to invest the effort. You don't force the reader to focus on currently inconsequential figures.
  • When a character moves from minor to major, showcase this break. Have them state or endure something that the reader will vividly remember. It defines the character and makes them worthwhile to keep an eye on.

One more reference

To a video game series. The Shadow of Mordor game series has been built on creating a dynamic narrative for the player, and uses a technique similar to the one I was referencing.

A short summary of the game:

  • The player spends his time killing an endless army of Orcs, which are a dime a dozen, except for the Captains, who have individual names, strenghts, weaknesses.
  • The player respawns after death (part of the story - not just a gameplay "hack"). The world continues after his death, and will acknowledge that he has died.
  • The player doesn't just kill. He can also influence the promotional hierarchy of the Orc army. A captain that kills the player (or other captains) gets promoted and becomes stronger.

This last part is essential to making the enemy feel like they are a dynamic army where orcs can go from being a minor enemy to a major nemesis for the player (ding! this is why I'm talking about it).

Most Orcs the player kills are foot soldiers. They have no name. They are easy to kill, and usually pose no threat. The player is mostly focused on hacking his way through in order to get to the Captain that is nearby.

However, it can happen that a grunt kills the player. When this happen, the grunt gets a cutscene, where he taunts the dying player and tells him how the player will always remember him as [insert Orc Name here]. This Orc is then promoted to captain and given a name, strengths, and weaknesses. Some of them will thank the player for getting them promoted.

Taunting the player (or at least making a speech) is essential to making the Orc stand out from the grunts. The player will remember them by what they say during their speech. It sets the stage for the expected future interaction with the player.
As a simple example, let's say that a grunt gets a lucky shot in at you. The grunt makes a speech, "Haha. You fucking idiot. You don't stand a chance against me.", and the grunt takes on the name Shrak The Superior. You will remember him, and you will want to seek him out just to wipe that smile off his face.

This is the definining feature that makes the game feel like a living world. The player now understand that any of the thousands of Orcs that he kills could become the next Captain. He sees that the army of Orcs is a web of connections.

Note that the choice here is secretly forced. The grunts don't have names and backstories. The game just generates a name and backstory when it needs to (on grunt promotion). Since the player doesn't know the grunt's name until it is stated, he is therefore unable to see that the game invented a backstory on the fly.

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    +1, a very nice, complete explanation and it also resonates with what I had in mind. This is very helpful. – Totumus Maximus May 31 '18 at 9:19
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For me personally as a reader, yes. I find too many characters and too many arcs distracting, confusing and alienating. If you were trying to reach me, specifically, I'd recommend separating your arcs out into to separate books that run in parallel.

Or, if you're even more ruthless with your own work, you could write out all the arcs, but let a lot of them remain as background worldbuilding that is not actually detailed in the final book (except where they interact with the main story arcs). That gives you a richer main story without the downsides.

I know there is a wide variety of opinion on this, but (again for me as a reader) the multiple changes of POV is a red flag. For me, unless it's done extremely well, even one change in POV can be an attention killer. I'd rather have the other characters report back to the main character, or something like that, where I can easily integrate it into the continuity I'm keeping running in my head.

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The late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has approximately 10,000 named characters and 500 story arcs*. You may take this either as evidence that it can work or cautionary tale. Or perhaps both.

*slight exaggeration

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    I never read the Wheel of Time and it seems really overwhelming to start with. – Totumus Maximus May 31 '18 at 7:28
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    Jordan also passed away before finishing the series, and his "final book" ended up being 3 books written by another author for the series to conclude. Definitely a cautionary tale... – kuhl May 31 '18 at 13:19

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