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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 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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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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