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The primary plot of a story is a rather light mystery involving two characters in pursuit of a lost treasure of sorts, forced to solve a legendary riddle, following archaeological clues and occasional hints from a secretive sidekick. There's some romance, there's some danger, there are character-defining and perhaps a little grim backstories of everyone involved, but it's all rather gradual and no "cloak and dagger" or "Indiana Jones" shenanigans are going to happen. It will thicken in time, exploring the protagonists' motivations, but only around the time the plots meet.

Then there's the secondary plot, providing extra details for the primary plot. A seasoned researcher explores secret societies, dabbling in alchemy, occult, lab experiments, plagues, there are crazy scientists, magical artifacts, asylums - hoo, boy.

At some point, the characters from the primary plot will halt at a roadblock plot device they won't overcome without at least partial knowledge from the secondary plot. The problem is that the "backstory" plot seems much more defined, more interesting, more "juicy", than the more lighthearted primary plot.

At this point I'm thinking of several solutions, neither of them quite good.

  • The primary protagonists finally meet the character bearing the backstory and are given a lecture. A huge wad of info dropped on the reader in very short time is just bad flow.
  • The stories are presented in parallel. The flow would be better, but the reader could start focusing on the backstory more than the main plot.
  • The backstory-bearer joins the primary party and slowly feeds them more and more details from the secondary plot on a "need to know", "you didn't ask" basis. It would seem to fix the flow, but it would require for all of the characters to spend significant time together, which isn't a good idea for certain reasons.
  • The secondary plot isn't even known by its bearing character entirely, and measures are taken so that to proceed with the primary plot the protagonists do not to need the whole backstory, just the final conclusion of it. This way the secondary plot's complexities are left for other character(s) to explore at their own leisure, in due time, not to overburden the plot as it is. But then they DO need to explore it, devoting time previously unplanned for that.

How else would you eventually combine a thin primary and a thick secondary plot?

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Multiple plots should belong together

All plots in a story need to be able to answer the question of why they are in the story and why they are there together.

This basically means that there needs to be some connection between the plots. One causes the other. One provides information to the other. Or one influences the other. Or, of course, even better; they influence each other.

Thematic connections also work. For instance, showing the same/or a similar problem being dealt with in different ways, or showing opposites, etc. All in order to show the theme/message.

You would usually decide what plots should go into the story in two places:

  1. Before you write the story while outlining it or planning to write it
  2. After you've written the first draft while editing it

On both these occasions, you can brainstorm ways to connect the plots even more. This could be done using setting, characters, events, etc.

If you're halfway through your first draft, I don't recommend going too deep into this work just now. Chances are, at this point you don't really know your story and it would benefit most if you finished the first draft and then took a step back to figure out what needs to be changed.

So, the rest of this answer is probably going to benefit a story in the planning stage (1) or a manuscript finished at the first draft level (2) most.

Use the message/theme

In your case maybe the message is that action without information is going to fail. Your secondary-research plot shows a character getting all the info before acting while the primary plot shows people acting without having all the information. You might add some inciting event that will make the characters in both plots start acting (anything from something they both read in the news to one requiring the assistance of the other).

Or, you could flip it. Maybe the message is that thinking without action is never going to make change happen. The characters of the main plot force the characters of the secondary plot to get out of their libraries and apply their knowledge in the real world.

Or, combine them. The message being acting without thinking is just as fruitless as thinking without acting: The main plot and the secondary plot depend on each other and the characters in each plot will teach each other to think before acting or not just hide behind all that knowledge but also act on it.

Maybe the main plot isn't the main plot?

You've noticed that your main plot seems thin. Maybe it's not the main plot? Maybe the secondary plot is the main plot and the main plot is secondary?

Maybe you are trying to force your story into an archetypal format for mysteries (maybe even action adventures), but that isn't working out entirely?

Writing to a format, for instance, crime or adventure can be a good thing for sales and popularity of the novel. It's "McDonald's." You know what you get and you get the same quality every time. Safe and predictable, and a good time reading it. So your audience might be more likely to purchase something that feels well packaged in that archetypal/genre package.

However, your story is dependent on you as an author as well. If you find yourself having trouble fitting your story into that format, perhaps you shouldn't? Who said a story from the research angle wouldn't be successful? Especially if the "action"-plot came crashing into this researcher's safe and predictable life and caused havoc for them. (Hm, isn't that a bit like "The Da Vinci Code?")

External plot vs internal plot

I'd also like to mention Witness. (Check it out if you haven't.)

What's the main plot here? Amish romance or a bad cop trying to silence a witness?

The two plots are connected, but the Amish plot takes the main stage of the story for most of the second act and the bad-cop plot only really enters the story in the beginning and end.

What's happening here is a very distinctive division of the story into its (usually) two "sides of the same coin:" The external, action-driven plot, and the internal character-driven plot.

The external plot is about external events, actions, threats, ticking bombs, and bullets flying in the air (or maybe words flying in the air, or betrayals... all depending on the genre, etc.)

The internal plot is about character change. It's not always present in all types of genres, and in some genres, it's the central plot.

These two usually go hand in hand (in Witness they are both carried by the main character, John Book).

Maybe your story's two plots are one internal and the other external? Or maybe your story could be changed to make that happen?

To make that work, you usually need to find a character that can be in both. For instance, the primary plot is forcing the character in the secondary plot into a change arc (inner change).

Thin and thick

If by "thin" you mean one plot has fewer words than the other then that's ok. But I feel you mean one plot is of lower quality or not as interesting or not as attractive than the other.

You should try to change your story so you have no "thin" parts according to the second definition above. If you can see it's bad, boring, etc, improve it or cut it.

Of course, there will be a point where you'll have to say enough is enough. A point where you won't be able to go further.

That's good and it's necessary or you'll never finish your first novel and never be able to shine more in your second...

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  • I'll start from the end. By "thin" and "thick", I was mainly thinking in the terms of possible reader captivation. Where the primary plot was developed with proper flow in mind, with characters slowly learning their mutual motivations, building trust and unveiling their backstories, the secondary plot was mainly an "OK, how do we make it so that they don't just KNOW things they cannot?" - so, explanations were invented, with research leading to them, with events obstructing the research, with actions overcoming the obstructions, and... the secondary plot possibly outgrew the primary plot. Aug 4 at 15:03
  • All in all, I'll likely go with the variant of your "internal" vs "external" split. After all, the reader doesn't need to know up front how the "clue" that is needed for the primary plot came to be discovered, fascinating as that might be. It can well be left as a backstory to be explored way, way later, when the events of the primary plot "thicken" enough for the research plot not to contrast with it. From there they could run in parallel (main protagonist reading the researcher's diary, or something). Thanks for the tip! Aug 4 at 15:07
  • @SinustheTentacular, I see. Yes, low reader captivation would also be something you should probably try to edit out as much as possible. I think tips on dealing with boring scenes might be helpful. Here's one: kmallan.com/2019/08/09/… I also recommend checking out James Scott Bell's "Revision and Self-Editing for Publication" It contains good info on making scenes pull their weight (and a lot of other good info as well).
    – Erk
    Aug 5 at 6:33
  • Is "To Kill a Mockingbird " comong to mind for anyone else? She mixed the heavy and light themes quite perfectly.
    – Starscream
    Aug 10 at 19:58

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