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I've written a few not-very-good books in the fantasy realm. One struggle I've had is juggling multiple plotlines. For the first book I wrote I wanted to write a twisty, intricate story with a lot of characters whose backstories all intertwined. I think it failed because in the end it was too convoluted and even I couldn't keep all of it straight. For the next one, I focused on a very simple plotline and one love interest side-plot and it felt paper-thin and predictable. I'm wondering if there is a rule of thumb for how many different stories can intertwine in an average-length novel.

Any research I've attempted to conduct mentions lots about story arcs and character development, but nothing seems to answer this question directly.

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There is no rule for this. You can have as many, or as few plot lines as you wish, provided that you give enough attention to each plotline. The difficult part of writing many/few plot lines is making the writing thereof interesting. Virginia Woolfs' Mrs Dalloway for example employs a huge number of subplots given its length, and gives each of the characters plenty of space to express themselves on the page. On the other hand, you have books like Anathem (which I'm picking because I know it) that is 900+ pages long, but only uses a handful of subplots, but explores philosophical themes in the interim.

So you don't necessarily need some number of subplots, but you do need to keep it interesting, and relevant: Watchmen by Alan Moore, though a different medium, uses sequences of panels in special ways that keep the comic interesting, while also telling a singular story.

Remember also that the plotting of a story is different from actually telling the story. What makes books interesting are the characters that populate the book (think Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan Book of the Fallen), and not necessarily the plot elements that you bring to it.

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The most important thing you need to focus on in plot design is how they all tie together. If you need 5, 6, or 7 plots in order that your characters will make sense when the climax comes around, then that works. The plots all have to build towards something. Perhaps in a more complex tale, wherein there are four or five installments, you could have two or three different climaxes in a single book so that each plot feels finished. If your plots don't build together, the final climax feels lesser, and the other plots feel pointless. Sometimes a subplot can stop and smell the roses, but a main plot has to have some point. Maybe you are just introducing a concept which isn't relevant yet, but it still has to build to something. The reader doesn't have to know yet, but you do so that you can choose your words and writing style well. The reader will trust you that everything you are putting down has a purpose, so keep to that trust. The more trust you build with them, the more exotic things you can do in later installments. In short, it varies based upon what and how you are writing. If you do the plots well, and keep subplots in their place, you'll find it hard to go wrong.

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The only time you can have too many plotlines is if you don't focus on each individual plotline. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, Book by C. S. Lewis. Each book is a different plotline, but they are all in, how do I word this, the interest of each other. You can see how each individual plotline adds up to each other, and it's not written in a 1-2 standard. Here's how it shouldn't go.

  • Plotline 1 ends.
  • Instantly starting plotline 2, with little to no reference to plotline 1.
  • Not having a full ending to plotline 2, and instantly jumping into plotline 3.

I hope this makes sense!

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  • Going with your Narnia example, we all know that Aslan is basically Lion Jesus, and the stories have biblical parallels. That said the first book in the story corresponds to the Gospels in the Bible (specifically the Crucifixion, one of the few events discussed in detail in all four Gospels). The "Genisis" parallel is the sixth book in Narnia, despite it being the first book in the Bible and is immediately followed by the book that parallel's Revalations (the final book in both Narnia and the Bible).
    – hszmv
    Jun 20, 2023 at 12:48
  • Another example I like to use for this is "Holes" which has multiple stories told at various points in history (The main story, featuring Stanley Yelnats IV's experience at the juvinile detention camp, a flashback to explain how he got there, a flashback within the flashback that explains the origin's of the Yelnats' family's bad luck set in Eastern Europe in the 19th century prior to the U.S. Civil War, and a story of a forbidden love between a black man and a white woman in late 19th century Texas (post-civil war). All of these stories all tie together to resolve IV's present conflict.
    – hszmv
    Jun 20, 2023 at 12:53
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Most likely correct answer: 2-3 plotlines

Better answer: as many as you can keep track of and explain to the readers well

Why these answers?

If you cannot keep track of your stories, how can you expect the readers too? You have too much going on in the story and need to trim it down so you can understand it. Then trim it down a bit more. You are the author, yes, which means you understand the words on the pages and the words in your head. Readers can only understand the words on the page, the words in your head they don't even know exist. Once you get it to be understandable to you and a you who has never heard of the book before and just now read it, you can see the plotlines.

I'm sure with some clever wordings, a bunch of charts and organization, and a bit of experience, you'll be able to get it back up to what you originally imagined.

This is probably going to be around 2-3, plus a few smaller ones, although what you really consider a plotline may affect this.

Really, the only limit on plotlines is how many can be understood at once. Don't confuse the readers, and definitely don't confuse you, and you'll be fine.

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