Jun 28, 2012

Creating Multiple Plot Lines

Game of Thrones
So many characters and each believe they are the true hero.

Most stories follow a protagonist, or hero, through their journey to overcome adversity, evil, boredom, loneliness, or whatever it is they are up against. However, some stories need more characters and story lines to cover the epic plot.
Multiple plot lines are common in fantasy. Anyone who's read George R R Martin's Game of Thrones (or seen the tv series) will know there are many key characters in this novel and each of them has their own story arc or plot line. If your story has many occupants, here's some tips:
  • Each character has their own story. Don't just throw in characters to enhance your protagonist's story. These characters have had their own paths leading up to this point. Remember, every character, even the busty barmaid serving mead to your luckless young hero, thinks this is THEIR story.
  • Consider POV. Most novels with multiple characters use third person point of view (POV) (this is where you use 'he, she, they, it...' to explain what characters are doing). This is because if you speak from many character's POV, you can easily confuse your reader. There is a trend in YA fiction to use first person POV (using 'I, we...'), this is to give the reader a feeling of closeness to the protagonist. You can still achieve this closeness by using third person omniscient POV, this is where we can hear the thoughts of characters and therefore understand their motivations. Most complicated plots, such as multiple story arcs, will use third person POV varying between limited (watching the characters, we're not in their head) and omniscient POV. For more on POV, this site explains it well: The Three Points of View in Writing.
  • Epic antagonist. If there are many different characters interweaving, you'll want to separate them into teams of light and dark, good and evil or blue and red (if you don't want to suggest one team has more justification than another). Your characters that lead these teams must be epic. If we have many characters telling stories in this novel, you want the antagonist to stand out amongst them all. I believe his story arc is even more important than the hero's, because it is the antagonist who drives the narrative. The best advice I've heard is to remember, a good antagonist believes HE is the protagonist.
  • Voices must be LOUD. I don't mean every character shouts, but each character must have a very distinct voice, to stand out and be heard amongst the crowd of characters. Great writers make every character distinct by their voice, even if they all look exactly the same (simply changing hair colour, gender or size is not a good way of making your character an individual). You can achieve this by making sure you know each character and their motivations well. Do up extensive character profiles, meet their family, live in their skin. For more on the importance of individuality of characters, you can see this post: James Baldwin and Character Who-ness.
  • Each story has its own time-frame. If you have multiple story arcs in your epic novel, don't start them all at the beginning of the novel and end them all at the close of the book. Each character's story will begin when they have their own inciting incident, and they may end much sooner than the overall story (especially if they die), or they may continue their own quest into book two. By giving each story arc its own point of rising climax, you give the reader more places to feel the rising tension and more small lulls where they can relax (momentarily).
It's a big job keeping track of many plot lines at once, especially if you're writing the epic novel as a collaboration with other writers. In my next post, I'll show you various techniques for keeping track of multiple plot lines and story arcs.


  1. Charmaine, this is awesome. We have certainly taken on a project and a half! We'll certainly need to keep track...


  2. Great post!
    I'm coming over from Alex's IWSG, by the way. Nice to meet you. :)

  3. That explains why some stories leave you feeling a bit confused when they just pop in a character or two. I think reading some classics could probably help modern writers. Great post.

  4. That is a mega project... my head spins just trying to remember them all if I was writing this... :)

  5. Have you written this sort of story? I think it would be a compelling challenge at which to try a hand. Maybe someday ...

  6. Hi Charmaine! Interesting post. Multiple plot lines would be a big undertaking. Using some kind of visuals to keep track of everything would be a big help in keeping the different plot lines straight.

  7. Charmaine, this is simply wonderful. I like the idea where the antagonist thinks he/she is the protagonist.

  8. Yeah if you are going to use a ton, you surely have to use your brain. But when you are always thinking ten steps ahead, that isn't really an issue most times haha

  9. This is a really insightful post about characters and plot lines. It's so true that you have to know your characters inside out to make them stand out in your story:)

  10. This is really informative! I love the image above... it helps with the multiple plot line concept...
    A great post!

  11. The first novel I ever wrote had multiple POVs and plotlines. Yikes, it was a handful and a challenge, but so much fun!

  12. Great post! I've learnt all this the hard way while writing my beast of an epic fantasy.

    The story is so complex that I'll never be able to write down the planning. Too much going on all the time. I just instinctively pick what goes in where as I write.

  13. Charmaine, good article. It's just as you say. All the protags must have distinctive voices, and yet their motives and stories must be wound together so as to climax at different times for a good reading experience. It takes work, but is worth reading, if done well.

  14. Hi Charmaine,

    Thanks for this post. I've found as I've been writing that my character paths have crossed and become intertwined in a way I hadn't expected. The flow of the writing has lent itself to what feel like natural developments. In fact, one character has become far more important than I envisaged.

    Maybe that is lack of planning (I had planned!) or a reaction to a natural flow of events. Either way, your post has given me food for thought!!