I was reasoning with a friend about why movies/novels often get highly successful while others, despite having an interesting story/topic, don't get much attention. We came to speak about Matrix, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys.

My reasoning is, those stories became über-successful as they basically offer different parallel storylines to every human, not only a single interesting perspective/topic needing specific background knowledge.

For example, Matrix covers several fields:

  • different love stories (Morpheus-Niobe, Neo-Trinity,...)
  • technological aspects (nerdy view)
  • philosophy behind the story (am I living in a simulation, where will technological progress lead us)
  • religious aspects (Neo is seen as a god)
  • ...

So from nerd over grandpa to a child, everybody can connect to a sub-storyline. Besides those points, of course the overall story has to be interesting, end unclear, it has to make critics think...

So bearing this in mind, if you want to write a script/book being able to connect to every audience and not only e.g. sci-fi fans besides incomplete fields above, what would be the common denominator, the structure to develop such a story without ending in a mixed grey hodgepodge? Have you tips/rules how to balance/weight different storylines (is a red thread necessary between chapters), storylines that must exist like the often mandatory love relation of characters, storylines that draw away a lot attention and you should minimize as far as possible, without missing it.

Should you start with a sub-storyline offering a common denominator to all kinds of audience? Do today's critics expect a minimum diversity of sub-storylines in a novel/script. How did successful multi-stories (no pure sci-fi/romantic novel) deal with this problem? E.g., do they focus on the harder to understand storylines in one/following chapters while breaking up the love storyline in small distributed bits?

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    What a broad question? So, essentially you're asking how to organize a book that is trying to appeal to as many people as possible through story lines? Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 0:20
  • @TheIrish The main question is how to "coordinate" different parallel storylines, how to weight&structure them. I just tried to explain a bit in detail what the set of difficulties is and what the answer should imho cover. I would try to answer it in a item list. Its no easy question, but to me fundamental thinking about movies/novels i know. And not to "as many as possible", but a broad audience (i.d. broad educational spectrum and/or broad age spectrum)
    – Hauser
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 0:38
  • How about Twilight? It only has one perspective/level of thinking: the benefits of having a vampire boyfriend. And it's one of the most successful novels all time.
    – wyc
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 10:15

3 Answers 3


I get the impression that underneath this question is a question about ideal structure. That's too philosophical a topic so you have just presumed such a thing exists and based your question on that presumption. So to reword slightly: "Given the existence of an ideal plot structure and all that goes with it how do I, as a writer, take advantage of that to deliver superb writing nuggets every time?"

If it does exist, and I'm not saying it does, then it surely has it's root in the monomyth written about by Joseph Campbell. Many of the most popular stories adhere to the monomyth's "Hero's Journey" closely. Here's the rub: Many unpopular and quite terrible stories also claim to adhere to this structure, sometimes deliberately.

In fact the 12 stage hero's journey is something aspiring Hollywood screenwriters are taught as if it was some kind of scientific formula. Movie scripts are rigorously vetted for the "correct" rhythm of "story beats" to make the story "interesting" and "accessible" (excuse the quotation-mark madness but it's the only way to communicate the intensely dubious nature of all this).

When it pays off movies make stupid money and they also become long cherished favourites that generate income due to slightly ludicrously overgenerous copyright laws. Most of the time people identify what's been milled out of the Hollywood sausage factory as warmed over tripe of the worst variety.

So, what's the magic ingredient?

If there is one, and we're well into alchemy territory here, it lies in the difference between emotion and sentiment. If you genuinely care in a benign and honest way about the story you are telling, if you are just humbly trying to create the best damn story you possibly can and if you are talented enough to produce good written work, then these structures might be the final guidepost that help you produce something wonderful.

The final rub is this: This is true even if you know them thoroughly, have considered them deeply and then decide to completely ignore them because your story is better served by being itself and not by adhering to some anthropological recipe. So maybe the structure isn't as important as the care, talent and genuine honesty.

Which leads us into the middle of nowhere and leaves us to some very hungry conceptual wolves. As it should be.

  • You win! Spot on! I was more asking how to organize/weight different substorylines when you have to write for a broad audience (either because you want or it is your job (screenwriting). I very agree that there is probably no golden forumla and has not to be, but imo there are patterns of storyline structure within those successful novels/movies mentioned above. How they are ordered, how many are used at all, how much weighted vs. each other. thx for mentioning the Hero Journey, was new to me.
    – Hauser
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 13:44
  • @Hauser: My advice, FWIW, study the hero's journey deeply, try to understand why it exists. What Campbell wrote about suffers from being true but having no obvious corollary or use that's apparent to his peers. Also there is this problem of sticking to the recipe not always doing the job. Sentiment is the biggest enemy of success. The Wachowski's included Neo/Trinity for mostly cynical reasons, Rowling was working for her child and for her love of children's fiction. Which one was really the winner?
    – One Monkey
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 22:48

I think your approach is wrong. Rather than trying to write what you love, you are trying to write for all the market segments. This almost never works. If it was so easy to cater to different market segments with a single book, publishers would have done so by now by using salaried writers.

Instead, you not only have vampire novels, but vampire romance, vampire horror, vampire erotica, vampire action/thrillers. The readers of one genre would not be caught dead with a book of another.

Do todays critics expect a minimum diversity of sub-storylines in a novel/script.

Don't write for the critics; write for yourself, and people like yourself who might be interested in paying for your work. And don't look at what Hollywood does- they have thousands of people working on a project, each of whom has their own agenda. Writing is a solitary task, with only the writer deciding the path of the book.

Your main question breaks down to - How do I plot a novel? The answer is, start small. Add an overall theme, a few main characters, and what their goals are. Then you plot out the actions the characters will take to achieve their goals, and what is stopping them. As to adding romance / suspense etc, it will have come automatically if your book requires it. But don't specifically try to add stuff in just because you think some granny somewhere might like it. Unless you are a psychic, you have no ideas what grannys like. :)

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    You could always ask your granny what she reads. :) Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 14:05
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    I have never heard of a project that attempted to make novel writing more like writing for television etc. where there have been salaried writers and focus groups and all that stuff. Has anyone else heard of this? And if not, who says it wouldn't work? I'd be fascinated to read the autopsy of any failed experiments in this area. Also, yeah, writing for critics is stupid.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 18:14
  • if you take the matrix, the wachowski brothers werent probably so interested in a love story, but they knew, for getting enough money to produce this movie, they had to include it. Otherwise it would just have been a scifi-action movie appealing to a much smaller audience. I dont think starting a story like matrix works the way you explained in your last paragraph. You have to think more from the end. I agree with one monkey there are more common patterns/structures in such widely successfull novels/movies
    – Hauser
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 13:52

I think it is a mistake to try to be all things to all readers. Most books focus on one specific genre, or maybe a combination of a couple of different loosely matched genres. That alone is going to alienate certain readers. If you try to throw in additional elements to try to appeal to readers who might not otherwise like the base genre, then all you will do is alienate the target audience that is most likely to have selected your book in the first place.

Perhaps a better approach is to just tell a good story. If you stay true to the elements that define the genre and provide a compelling plot with realistic characters, then you may end up appealing to a larger audience. A classic example is the Harry Potter novels. While the original genre is YA Paranormal, it has elements that appeal to a larger audience. People who are more into action/adventure have elements they would enjoy, while people who are more into romance have elements they would enjoy. The basic appeal of the series overall is that the books are crafted well and they tell a good story. Make that your focus!

  • thx for your hints. But imho harry potter (i dont know it really besides two movies) doesnt match above examples. Its mainly for kids, pure fantasy. I dont see very thematically different topics in it at all (philosophy, existential questions, love story etc.)
    – Hauser
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 13:56

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