Lesser Evil

A plot line is based on interactions among a select group of characters. They are united by location or developing goal or struggle. The lines crisscross as the novel goes forward. If there are three plot lines—A, B, and C—the scene sequence can look like: A-B-C, A-B-C, etc.

What does not lend itself as easily to a schematic drawing is how to gauge the varying impacts of the plots. While the main determinant is how much coverage each one receives, a valuable point to keep in mind is: how much tension is it creating? What drives conflict draws us deeper into the realm of intangibles, because tension can derive both from plot events and from the personal obstacles, often psychological, the lead characters face. The sheer variety of choices for tension is what makes writing novels fun—and hard to plan clearly.

Because fiction is driven by obstacles, you cannot treat all plot lines as though they are equal in dramatic weight. Rather, you have to be honest with yourself about (1) how interesting a plot line’s interactions are and (2) how much attention you have devoted to making its characters fully rounded. Let’s say, in one chapter a hero has a tormented past, with a looming mystery as to what happened to him, and he is tracking down the main demon. The next chapter features a heroine who is also intriguing, but she spends her time dealing with the problems of a character the reader barely knows. You can’t assign equal lengths to those chapters and expect the reader to stay as involved with both. One plot aim is more compelling than the other.

A useful exercise when reviewing a manuscript is cataloging what each of the characters helming a plot line is doing in each scene. In a first draft you tend to run with ideas that strike you at the time, that pull you into a skein of words that unravels. At that point the length doesn’t matter; the point is getting the idea out on paper. Yet upon review, how much time is being expended for what gain? Write out what the gain is and how many pages the scene takes up.

Then look at the scenes before and after it. That’s where the calculations pay off. If another plot line is surging at that point, the length expended on its scene is worth it. Moreover, you should be cutting back the scene that is less compelling—because the reader wants to ride the other plot’s surge as long as it’s bristling with tension.

Exercise: Then look down the road at all of the scenes related to the one you have just trimmed. Are they continuing in the same less fruitful vein? Maybe you should recalibrate the plot line. Maybe the lead character should be given stronger counterparts. Or, maybe that plot’s scenes shouldn’t appear as often.

“It is more important to know how to mix and match the clothes than to spend money.”
—Valeria Mazza

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.