When we start to write, we pour our stories onto a page and hope for the best. We add characters, viewpoints, settings, and backstory, thinking that it will make sense to everybody else because it makes sense to us. It most often does not.
The best way to begin, at least in your first book, is to stick to one plot and one sub-plot. Think of it as a practice run to help you concentrate on storytelling.
This will encourage you to focus on creating nuanced, powerful characters who live in their own extraordinary worlds, even if that world is one room. These characters must overcome obstacles in pursuit of a goal.
Lots of sub-plots may fill up pages, but, if they are weakly constructed, they won’t make the story lines stronger. Every sub-plot should have a character who pursues his or her own story goal, encounters conflict, and reaches a positive or negative resolution. When you consider this, you begin to understand how complicated these stories within stories can become.
7 Ways To Tell If You Have Too Much Plot In Your Story
If you answer these seven questions, you will find out if your story is cleverly layered or clearly over-laden.
1. Do they understand?
Explain your story to five strangers. It is better if these people are not writers or even regular readers. If you confuse them, or worse, yourself, you have a problem. Once you have told your story, ask them to tell you what they think you mean – in their own words. If they can’t, or if you hear something you don’t recognise, you have too many plots.
2. Can you tell a sub-plot as a stand-alone story?
If you can, you should probably write it as a separate book.
Sub-plots are there to support your main plot. They have three functions:
(1) They are there to show a different perspective of the central conflict,
(2) They test your protagonist’s motivations and abilities to achieve the story goal, and
(3) They show different aspects of the protagonist’s personality.
[Read 6 Sub-Plots That Add Style To Your Story] If your sub-plot does not do this, or does much more than this, it deserves to be removed or written as a separate book.
3. Has your protagonist changed?
A primary function of plot is to force the protagonist to change on the way to achieving a physical story goal. [Read The Story Goal – The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure] This internal change occurs when they recognise their strengths and overcome inner demons to achieve this goal.
If your character has not changed, it means that you’ve cluttered the story with noise instead of meaning.
4. How many characters matter to your main plot?
If you have more than four, you have a problem. Remember that each of these four characters is a possible viewpoint character and looking at a story from more than four perspectives in one book is crazy. [Read How To Use The 4 Main Characters As Literary Devices ]
This does not mean that there won’t be other characters; it simply means that you need to give prime time to a few characters who are crucial to the story.
5. Do your supporting characters have their own sub-plots?
You know the answer should be no. If you love the character this much, consider writing a novel about him or her.
6. Is your book filled with events that do not move your protagonist towards the story goal?
Avoid including conflict for conflict’s sake. If events happen that spin the story and the characters in many different, unrelated directions, you will struggle to keep a reader’s attention. It takes a skilled storyteller to keep this going.
Long, complicated books are published by authors who already have an established track record. Their early books are much shorter. For example, one of George R.R. Martin’s first books, Dying of the Light is only 288 pages long, and Stephen King’s Carrie, published in 1974, is only 199 pages long. [Read Word Counts – How Long Should Your Novel Be?]
7. Can you write a one-page synopsis for your story?
If you can’t, you have over-plotted. This synopsis must be about your protagonist’s journey, from the inciting moment, creating a believable story goal, putting a worthy antagonist and obstacles in place, to the end where the story goal is reached. How you deal with this ending – negatively or positively – is your choice. [Read How To Write A One-Page Synopsis]
Remember you can tell a story any way you want to, but it may make your life easier if you accept that too many plots can spoil a book. Why not see if you can plot a great book with one plot and one sub-plot before you embark on a potentially messy marathon?
© Amanda Patterson
If you enjoyed this article, you will love:
- 6 Things Alfred Hitchcock Can Teach You About Writing
- The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book
- The Only Character Questionnaire You Need to Complete
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