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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Multiple Storylines for Suspense, Part 2

Last time I introduced the idea of intercutting between two or more storylines as a means of increasing suspense and speeding up the rate at which readers tear through your pages.

This time I'm going to talk about the one caveat to using multiple storylines: you must stay with your main storyline for a goodly number of pages (like 40-60) before cutting away to other storylines.

Here's why: when your reader comes to your book she needs awhile to get grounded in the world of your story and in the mind of your viewpoint character. Cut away to another storyline too early and it will have a disorienting effect on your reader.

She was just beginning to catch your rhythm and figure out who the main character was and what that character was like. She was just beginning to care about your protagonist and become willing to invest in him or her.

When suddenly that's yanked away from her and she's asked to take on a whole new set of characters and concerns, a new viewpoint character, and a new major character and all that goes with that. She hadn't had time to really connect with your first one and now she's expected to connect with a new one?

Except now she's gun shy and afraid to engage with this new character because this one's probably going to get yanked away, too. So she stays aloof from your story. Fool her once, shame on you; fool her twice...?

A reader who is wary of engaging with your book is a reader who is already 99% of the way to putting your book down permanently.

A Night at the Movies

Imagine if you were selected to receive a free movie at the local multi-screen cineplex. You're assigned a burly escort who leads you to a front row seat in their shiny new stadium seating auditorium. You sit through the 45 minutes of pre-movie ads and previews, and finally the feature film begins. It looks good. This is the kind of movie you like. You settle in to have a g—

Suddenly your escort yanks you out of your chair and pulls you to the theater exit. What's going on? He drags you across the hall and into the movie that's playing there. He drops you into the front row seat just as this other movie is beginning.

Flustered and a little angry, you try to go back to the first theater, but Mr. Man won't let you. With a heavy sigh you turn your attention to the screen and try to get into this new movie.

Well, at least it's a comedy. And it has one of your favorite actors in it. You begin to think you might actually enj—

Yank. Dragged out. New theater. New movie.

Would you cut that out!

And so it goes. Just as you're getting into a new story you're asked to start caring about a new one. Sometimes you circle back to ones you've been in before, but by now you've been abused too much to care. You were never allowed to become truly invested in any of the stories, so now they're all just noise. You don't care about any of them.

And yet you could have. That's the tragedy.

I hope you see the parallel. It's jarring to go from storyline to storyline. If you give your reader no anchor, no home base, she will feel jerked around like our poor moviegoer.

The trick is to give her a home base, and you do that by staying in your primary storyline with your primary protagonist for a good number of pages at the beginning of your book. I recommend at least 40 contiguous pages before cutting away to another storyline.

This allows your reader to figure out some things, to get her bearings. It tells her who your protagonist is, what his or her main concerns and characteristics and goals and fears and weaknesses are, and what kind of story this is. It introduces the main world of your story and, most likely, it begins to sketch out what the story is going to be. It plants your reader firmly into the mind of your main character.

Once she has that kind of grounding, you can cut away to other storylines to your heart's content. She can handle the change then. And cut away you should, as my previous article suggests.

I suspect novelists who cut away too early are doing so because they want to keep things interesting. They want the book to feel like it's moving along briskly—and besides, they've seen that intercutting thing being done in their favorite books and movies and they want to be sure to use it.

Good idea and good instincts. But wrong timing. Let your reader find her footing in your primary storyline before cutting away to any others.

The one exception to this rule is the prologue. I'm a big fan of prologues. Readers understand that a prologue may be from a storyline other than the primary one, so they can handle it when chapter 1 is in a new storyline.

In a prologue readers often get a tantalizing look at the devious madman who will be the book's antagonist, or they may learn what the OR-ELSE component is as they see the villain start the time-bomb to ticking (see Tip #20 on my Web page), or they may see something that happened to the protagonist years before the primary story begins.

The point is that they're okay with not knowing everything that's going on in a prologue. If they're a little disoriented in a teaser scene like this, they can take it. In fact, they like it, especially if the scene is well done and whets their appetite for what is to come.

So here's the plan: do intercut between multiple storylines but begin with the primary one and don't cut away from it for at least 40 pages (except in the case of a prologue, which is a freebie).

Founder, WhereTheMapEnds


Blogger Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

It was my lucky day to find your blog the BLOG OF NOTE!!!


I've bookmarked and shall return often because your writing craft tips are just what I was looking for. :D

Thank you for taking the time for teaching writers the ropes. :D


11:39 AM  
Anonymous sabgian said...

Hey you're really good! I've been so sick of reading the latest novel that gets me giddy indeed with all the quick changes of characters!

Writers! FOLLOW his advice!

1:15 PM  
Blogger John "Kooz" Kuczmarski said...

Wow. AWESOME imagery. love the jolted reader/audience image. That's a great scope to take as a creator/writer/author/director/even actor. AFter all, an actor who changes his "visage" frequently in the movie could give the audience a disturbing jolt, too.

However, "Just as you're getting into a new story you're asked to start caring about a new one. Sometimes you circle back to ones you've been in before, but by now you've been abused too much to care. You were never allowed to become truly invested in any of the stories, so now they're all just noise. You don't care about any of them."

That sounds like the story of my life.:(. But...one benefit from all that is that you teach the reader to create their own story!! If they constanlty get extracted from the stories of the theaters, eventually, in the craving to "see a movie", they'll make their own.

7:34 AM  
Blogger John "Kooz" Kuczmarski said...

By they way. You have excellent material. I'm linking your site, okay!

7:35 AM  
Blogger R2K said...

: )

8:04 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

That's exactly what Khaled Hosseini did (author of Kite Runner) in his new book A Thousand Splendid Suns. He gave the first character about a hundred so pages and the next character a hundred so pages and the two characters together about a hundred or so pages.
It was good. I've never actually had this happen to me. I've never really read a book with multiple story lines.
I wasn't aware that movie theaters had burly escorts.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous İsim said...

Your blog entries are so BEAUTIFUL

5:34 PM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

You guys are great. Good comments.


8:37 PM  
Blogger RedKnight said...

I remember reading Wes Craven's "Damnation Game". It did this a few times in the beginning of the book and it really through me off for a bit. I would begin a new chapter and it was like reading a completely different book! I finally looked at it as if I was watching a movie, and the scenes would change back and forth to different characters with there own story lines that eventually intertwined. It made more since to me then.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Earl said...


6:34 PM  
Blogger hoju said...

that is so cool! you've made me decide to write a suspense book right now! i won't tell you what it's about, cause i want to keep you all in suspense!

10:03 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

One variation on this, particularly if you have converging storylines, is to devote less and less time to each story line as the plot develops.

There are good novels that separate plot strands: examples are "Hardboiled Wonderland and the end of the world" by Murakami, "Making History" by Stephen Fry and "Inversions" by Iain M. Banks... Each of these novels alternates between story lines from chapter to chapter and use this device to drive the plot.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Jun Jie said...

Hey, i love the way you write those stories. I was wondering if any publishers approached you? maybe you can try approaching them and write a novel for them. I look forward to reading your books in the market =D
-Jun Jie. Singaporean

11:10 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...

Hi, jun jie. Thanks for your note.

I have written and published six novels. I write under the pen name Jefferson Scott.

If you go to www.jeffersonscott.com you can read sample chapters.


1:43 PM  
Blogger Tripp Page said...

What would you suggest for someone who mostly writes short stories (in regards to cutting between characters)?

12:06 AM  

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