A link to advice from Patricia C. Wrede on complex plots (and my own muddled take on it)

These first few posts are going to be links to older content that I’ve bookmarked because I found them useful or interesting in some way.

First up is a link from Patricia C. Wrede’s blog called “Complicated Webs.”  The post talks about how to handle novels where you have multi viewpoints and plot lines that may be developing separately and discusses some common issues that writers need to consider with this type of novel.

As someone who has been a voracious reader my whole life I think I tend to evaluate my writing based upon gut instinct – does this seem to work or not?  I find guidance like this useful because it provides a framework for analyzing things when they don’t feel right.

So, this is how I implemented Ms. Wrede’s advice.  (In other words, you can stop reading now if I haven’t yet made the big time, because the following is simply unproven drivel.  Poorly explained, unproven drivel.)

I chose to map my scenes using Excel.  My novel is told primarily from the viewpoint of three main characters with a handful of chapters from the perspective of minor characters.

First, I was concerned with keeping the characters within the same general timeline throughout the book even though they aren’t interacting directly with one another for large portions of the story.  (I had one of those throw a book across the room moments when reading a very popular book a couple years ago and realizing a few hundred pages into it that the author had his characters so out of synch with one another that a minor character left one plot line and appeared in the next one a chapter or two later but earlier in time than the one he had left.  Sorry if that doesn’t make sense.  Suffice it to say, I personally believe that even if characters are half-way around the world from one another that the author should try to keep them moving along in the same general timeframe.)

Anyway, back to the point. I assigned each of my primary characters a row and a color and then used the columns in the spreadsheet to create blocks of time (first half of week 1, second half of week 1, etc.).  I then mapped each chapter I had written along the timeframe, color-coding each box based upon the main viewpoint character.

This forced me to keep the characters together in the timeline.  I didn’t want chapter 9 to be in week 3 and then chapter 10 to be in week 6 and then chapter 11 to be in week 4.  It forced me to wonder what Character B was doing in week 3 or 4 and whether I couldn’t develop his story somehow by adding a scene for week 4.  If not, then maybe chapter 10 needed to become chapter 15 instead.

Second, I wanted there to be an appropriate balance between the story lines for the various characters.  I didn’t want three chapters of Character A followed by one for Character B followed by two for Character A and then one for Character C.  To see this, I listed all of my chapters in one long column, put word count for the chapter in the next column, and the names of the main characters involved in the final column.  I color-coded the final column based upon who was involved and whose viewpoint it was told from (which means it might have multiple colors if two main characters are in the scene).

This allowed me to see at a glance if one color was dominating the story at any given point.

Finally, I tried tracking the emotionally intensity of the chapters, by bolding or italicizing the character names for each scene, but have currently abandoned that while working on the second draft.  (I suspect when I finish it, I’ll end up doing that again to find points where the novel bogs down too much or a character’s story needs a little extra oomph).

Because I’m a visual person, this has worked well for me.  I was able to use it to fill in some gaps early in the book where one of the characters tends to have the majority of the action, but the others need their own chapters in order to stay relevant to the reader.

We’ll see how it pans out in the end, but it did give me an excuse to play with Excel, which is always fun (and a great way to pretend to be productive while not actually writing anything – kinda like blogging).

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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