How Long Is a Reader’s Memory?

In a novel with a dominant main plot, the ending may be seen from a long way off. A sense of inevitability starts to mount—we know he’s going to get his man!—until the lack of anticipation becomes draining, and the book becomes put-downable. Part of the craft of writing is keeping the reader confused, off balance, so that its turns, and especially the ending, cannot be predicted. 

The best way to create variety is to create multiple plot lines. When a reader finishes a chapter featuring plot line 1, they become diverted onto line 2, or 3, which may or may not have anything to do with plot line 1. Because the main plot line will still contain the most scenes, you might consider an arrangement in which the subplot is compartmentalized into 8-10 scenes during the course of the book. So the first step is to sketch out how the plot line will build from one scene to the next. Write a paragraph that summarizes what each scene is about.

Then you need to become a manager. That’s right. Your reader’s enjoyment depends on how well you alternate between a main plot and a subplot. Let’s say you want to write eight scenes in the subplot. How many pages do you have in the manuscript? Let’s say you have written 400 pages. You know you want to start and end with the main plot, so that’s two more units. Then do the math. If 400 is divided by 10, you should insert a subplot scene every 40 pages. 

Yet you have another consideration. It’s important that you keep subplot characters on the reader’s radar screen enough that he does not forget them. Is 40 pages too long to keep these characters vital in the reader’s mind? I think the maximum number is closer to 30, and you might want to think in terms of 30-40 pages.

Last, numbers count when you’re considering length of scenes as well. If you run out a skein of main plot scenes for 33 pages and then drop in a 3-page subplot scene, is that long enough for the reader to care less about what is happening in the subplot? Think about it: 33 to 3. I’m not sure why I should be bothering with the people in those 3-page scenes. Why don’t you shoot for 6-7 pages per scene, long enough for your subplot guys to matter each time?

Exercise: The tricky part comes in when you have more than one subplot. You still want a maximum of 30 pages of separation. If the main plot is A, and the two subplots are B and C, you might aim for an alternation pattern that roughly runs: A-B, A-C, A-B, A-C, etc.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” —Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


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