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I'm working on a novel that will have at least three distinct sections in three distinct locations (the two main characters start in the first location, travel through the second location, and one stays in the third location). I have an overall story arc that connects the whole narrative, and I think there are strong storylines for each location.

The problem is that the sections feel very different in tone, and stakes, and I'm worried that the book will feel disconnected and episodic. There's no single villain in the book --the main characters are the only ones who travel from place to place, although there are connections between the locations. The story for the first section is more of an action/thriller. The middle section has some action, but is largely about a love triangle. The last section doesn't have as clear a genre, but the overall book is conceived of as a coming-of-age story. There's also elements of a quest narrative and a mystery plot.

I know --that's a lot! My tendency as a writer is to overthink and overcomplicate things. I don't want to get lost in the outlining here, my goal is just to tell the strongest possible story with these characters and these settings. I've thought about just focusing on one section of the story, but I don't think it really has resonance without the rest. I've also thought about going non-linear, with flashbacks and so forth, but I don't want to confuse or lose the reader. How can I give this story a strong throughline that will keep it from feeling episodic?

  • James Joyce's Ulysses is an example of a book where protagonists move from one location to another with no clear purpose, with no single villain and tone of each chapter is very different. If your story is a "journey", it's the protagonist(s) that binds it together. – Alexander Aug 16 at 16:13
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Find a underlying theme

Just because your sections have different tones and plots doesn't mean that they have to be entirely unconnected. You say that the book is a coming of age story - what are the specific elements of coming of age that the character(s) are learning to deal with? Is it about becoming the master of your own fate? Learning to take responsibility for the harm you've done others? Learning that not everyone has the same experiences that you do? Finding your place in the world?

A clear, specific theme will make your sections feel like they are telling and reinforcing the same story, rather than three different stories bound by common characters and a spine.

Provide a strong driving motivation

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (like many children's adventure novels) is very episodic by nature. But it holds together nicely, because the story is held together by Dorothy's desire to return home. This strong motivation holds the story together and keeps it pushing forward as they move from obstacle to obstacle.

The goal doesn't have to be tangible like Dorothy's was, as long as it is clearly defined and measurably attainable. As long as you never lose sight of the goal, your story can hold together through any number of diversions and sidequests.

Consider breaking your story into three books

If you can't find a theme that fits all three parts, or a motivation powerful enough to hold the parts together, you can go the other direction and break your book into three books. That way, each one is free to have its own tone and plot while still being connected as a series.

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Your book is about coming of age. You can have all of that, but then everything needs to serve the coming of age. The love triangle needs to be about how your character is developing into who he will be/needs to be. The opening needs to present the challenge that he must overcome. If it's action/adventure, fine, but it's got to ultimately show where he's deficient/powerless. The triangle ought to give him something he needs to develop in a way that he copes/grows with the primary issue. Then the final part of the novel ought to bring everything together, return to the types of things/weaknesses your character had at the beginning and show how the challenges/developments/decisions your character has made have let him overcome whatever it was that happened.

One thing that sticks out here is that if this is a coming of age story for just one character, having 3 characters matter enough to be walking around different places then maybe you're focusing on the wrong characters sometimes. Wherever you force the reader's attention is where the story goes. If your story is a coming of age story, keep the focus in the story on that. Only talk about the characters that matter to that story at a given time. There are times you need to build a foundation for a character to make sense, but often times you don't need too many struts unless you're introducing agent x (whatever thing is a curveball for everyone that warps your story and makes it interesting; mutants in x-men; magic in harry potter; allomancy in mistborn; the flood in halo).

It sounds like you're basically suffering from plot-builder's disease. It's like worldbuilders, but it's a thing where every plot point that could happen does happen and you explore those things out as far as it seems like they should be. Just like with world builders you have to know what matters and what doesn't. What is it that you want to say? Say it and stick to your point. Some amount of wondering from the main thread is fine, it can add texture. But, it becomes the story when it takes up too much space.

Replace he/him with whatever pronoun/name is appropriate. I mean nothing by it.

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I tend to write my novels as way more episodic than this (to the point that they are episodic short stories with connected characters... and the antagonist of the final couple of chapters is nominally present in chapters where they aren't the villain of that chapter).

There are some books that are even less connected than that, such as the Encyclopedia Brown series, which had ten stories with only the titular protagonist and his best friend, Sally, being part of the story in all 10 chapters. Often though there were recurring antagonists or clients of the boy detective that would be present in similarly numbered chapters in the book. For example, the first chapter would be Brown solving a case that his father, the police chief of the town, was having trouble with over the course of dinner (always before desert) and chapters 2 and 3 would feature the antagonist of neighborhood bully Bugs Meanie, with chapter 2 usually being a crime caused solely by Meanie and Chapter 3 featuring a crime Meanie pulled off with his bully gang "The Tigers". There was a final recurring antagonist named Wilford Wiggens who usually was once a book but had no specifically set chapter number devoted to him. His schtick was conning neighborhood kids with get rich quick schemes that Brown, Sally, and a one off kid acting as the client for that story all agreed was a rather suspect claim. Wiggins was noted for his attention to detail with his numerous examples and would give the demonstrations knowing Brown was there trying to reveal the con because not showing it would tip off the crowd that there was some scam... even if they couldn't say what it was.

At best, your story sounds like a Star Wars film (the first two trilogies) which George Lucas had stated he would try to include three distinct environments into each film for the story's bulk (especially noticable in the first trilogy. Emipre is the most straight forward with icy Hoth in the first act, swampy Degobah in the second, and Bespin's Cloud City, which shifts between Urban Palacial and Industrial plant depending on the Hero's perceived feeling of threat (Compare the droid shop where C-3PO is blasted by the unseen threat to the hall the shop door closes on before Chewbacca can see into the shop).

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