Keep your plot threads under control

When it comes to adding significant plot lines to your novel, you don’t want too many, or too few.

plot threadsHow can a good thread count help you write your novel? It’s true that when you retire for the evening, soft bedsheets may bring productive dreams, but I’m talking about making sure you include enough plot points—and not too many. A “thread” is a significant plot line for your characters.

Some beginning novelists create plots that are too straightforward, with all the attention focused on a single pending event in the book. Readers, though, prefer a little more complexity, a story that better mirrors the intricate interweavings of real life.

The opposite pitfall happens, too, when writers add subplot upon subplot, offering so many situations that the reader becomes confused about which are truly important.

Counting your threads to determine if your book is too simple or too scattered will help you decide which parts can be safely cut or enhanced. Following are some steps to help you look at your novel dispassionately:

1Identify your plot threads. This involves sitting down and listing all the major events your characters face in the novel. Not only events, but fears: If a character frets that something will happen (or conversely, desperately hopes for something to happen), that counts as a thread.

Don’t waste time by writing down each scene: If it fits into the category of an already-listed concern, or thread, then it’s already been counted. Once you list your threads on paper and see them bald and open to scrutiny, you can decide which ones don’t advance the plot.

Caution: It can be hard to determine what counts as a thread, so think of a  soap opera. Any story line about which a reader will want to know “What happens next?” is a thread. If your character goes to a big party, it’s not necessarily a thread. If your character goes to a big party and sees an ex-boyfriend she’s been pining for in Chapters 1 through 4, the thread could be “My main character longs to reconnect with her old flame, and does.”

You must go through your manuscript page by page, because while it is quite easy to log the big-picture concerns your characters are facing, it’s harder to remember the smaller issues they encounter unless you are looking right at that scene. (Incidentally, this is also a convenient way to speed-read through your book and get a sense of the overall arc of your novel.)

2Count the threads. Hopefully, you don’t need to pull out a calculator to do this! I believe you should include six to 11 threads. I arrived at this figure by examining successful, published books. More than 11 threads, and the book runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. When readers are overwhelmed, they lose interest—definitely not what you want for your book. Fewer than six threads, and the character’s journey is not complicated enough to hold a reader’s attention. You can enrich your novel by adding subplots, or by deepening the ones already in place.

“A novel can never be either too simple or too complex unless its plots and subplots are not fully developed and do not come to satisfying conclusions,” says Karen Essex, author of Dracula in Love. “Think Tolstoy vs. Hemingway, each obeying his own style and form.”

Let’s tease out the plot threads—I count 11—in a well-known novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. In this historical novel, which begins in 1664, Griet is a young, sensitive girl who leaves her family to work for the famous painter Vermeer.

• Griet becomes maid to Vermeer, to help support her family. Will she be all right living there?
• Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, is unkind to Griet. How will that affect Griet’s life in that house?
• Pieter the butcher wants Griet. Will they wind up together?
• Griet feels an affinity to Vermeer and his art—and they become somewhat intimate. Will this get her in trouble since she is overstepping her station (and with a married man)?
• Will the bubonic plague kill members of Griet’s family?
• Holland is undergoing a struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism; how will this play out?
• Griet’s father goes blind, while, in a parallel experience, Vermeer’s painting opens her eyes to color and perspective.
• Vermeer and Griet get closer; he trusts her to mix his paints. What trouble will that secret relationship bring her?
• Cornelia, Vermeer’s daughter, hates Griet and tries to frame her for theft.
• Van Ruijven has interest in Griet, but she doesn’t want to be seduced and left pregnant and penniless.
• What will Griet do with her life? She stares down at the compass in the middle of the paving and looks at the arrows pointing in so many different directions in her life.

3Increase the thread count, if needed. One of my online fiction-writing students failed to spin enough threads. Her book needed the richness of additional worries for her protagonist. Our personal lives are not a straight jog toward one single goal; we encounter different desires and constantly detour. To be true to life, a novel must include some of that. Even if someone is dying of cancer, for example, he will still worry whether his daughter is dating the right man, and he may have an ongoing personality conflict with his next-door neighbor.

“I think multiple threads are important because what we wait for in fiction is that moment when they intersect and reveal new meanings in each other,” says Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York. “In thriller/mystery fiction, that criss-crossing usually explains: ‘The butler used to be the bus driver? Oh, so the girl who died in that bus crash—ah! Now I understand why the butler kept pretending he couldn’t drive.’ ”

The threads should relate to each other and ultimately interweave. If you don’t have enough threads, try thinking like a sitcom writer. What character could you build a spin-off around? If the novel’s largely set at work, what’s going on at home? If a central plot thread is hugely dramatic, would there be any benefit to seeing another side of it through another character’s point of view?

Try to brainstorm various pots of trouble your characters can set to boiling. Among the methods to consider:
• Freewriting: sitting down and not letting your pen stop moving, going until unexpected ideas start popping out of your unconscious.
• Index carding: making a card for each scene, so you can tangibly see what is happening throughout the book and where weakness lies.
• Investigating parallels: If one character undergoes a certain journey, can another character live through an experience that mirrors it in some oblique way?
• Conversely, seeking out surprise threads: Open the dictionary at random
and point to a word, and see if that inspires some sort of plot invention.
• Perhaps the best suggestion: Write down a list of all your major characters and ask yourself, “What would be the worst thing that could happen to each of them?”

4Or, reduce the thread count if too much is going on. Ansary once performed an illuminating thread count on my work-in-progress, a young-adult novel. I was asking my readers to juggle no fewer than 20 different concerns. (A full half of them were explained mid-book by a plot twist, but that was still far too many.) I was able to go through his list and determine which threads did not advance the plot, and delete them.

Many people dread “killing their darlings” (deleting writing they think is beautiful). It’s true, a certain pain radiates up your spinal cord when you cut well-written sentences, paragraphs and even entire chapters. But just because something reads well doesn’t mean it belongs in this particular book. Create a computer file called “Darlings” and let those seeds germinate and regroup for another try later.

Other people (myself included) thrive on the utter recklessness of slashing words. It’s addicting, actually. I once had a deleted-scenes file for an unpublished novel that reached 300 pages. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that an editor once told him: “Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft –10%.”

So how do you decide what to cut? Make sure each thread connects to your overall theme. Let’s look at the earlier example of the man dying of cancer. The thread where he worries about his daughter dating the right man is one that supports the theme. Why? Because he knows that he won’t be around forever to protect her from heartbreak, to console her, to help her find the right person to share her life with. There is a poignancy to his trying to intervene in her current relationship, to get her out of it before it’s too late.

What about the ongoing feud with the neighbor? This is a much less productive thread, since it doesn’t really connect to the idea of the main character dying. Unless, let’s suppose, the man knows that his daughter will live in his inherited house after he dies. Then it becomes quite an important thread indeed, as the man tries desperately to reach some kind of accord with the neighbor so that his daughter won’t also fight with him.

5Count again. With either a streamlined or an amplified manuscript, the writer can go through again and feel satisfied that the novel has a complex, gripping plot that compels readers. You can use this method at any point: when you’re still using an outline to build scene chronology, when halfway through and wanting to assess your progress, and when you’re done and considering approaching an agent.

“Because I always lean toward the complicated and know I should simplify, I find myself teasing out threads to see which ones I can remove. If I tug and it doesn’t unravel a giant hole, I give myself permission to pull it out,” says Tanya Egan Gibson, author of the novel How to Buy a Love of Reading.

Persia Woolley, author of Guinevere: The Legend in Autumn, says, “I organize my novels by carding, and mark each card with a color indicating which plot line that scene relates to. Makes it easy to see when I’m laying out the whole book what threads are too dominant, too weak or just need rearranging in sequence so they don’t clump together. I used it on all three of the Guinevere novels, which had lots of threads. It’s fun and a nice visual change from letters on a screen.”

Whatever method you use, be assured that whenever you focus on the individual threads of your story, you’ll see more clearly than when looking at actual scenes. Organizing scenes by how they fit into the larger threads will greatly benefit your understanding of your own novel.

Erika Mailman is the author of two historical novels, The Witch’s Trinity and Woman of Ill Fame. She teaches novel writing through mediabistro.com. Web: erikamailman.com.

Let us count the threads: two novels dissected

HERE ARE two published novels and their threads, demonstrating that, in my view, six to 11 is an ideal number. Sometimes it’s easier to express a thread in terms of a question, although it is fine to think of it as a declarative statement as well. (Please note that these thread counts are spoilers! If you haven’t yet read these novels, apologies.)

belovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, this novel looks at the reverberations of slavery—and a particular frantic act—in the years following the Civil War.
1. What is haunting #124, the house on Bluestone Road where Sethe and Denver live?
2. Will Denver ever overcome her loneliness?
3. Will Paul D. and Sethe manage a successful relationship despite the desperately bad times they’ve lived through?
4. What did those desperately bad times entail?
5. What was Baby Suggs’ backstory?
6. What repercussions will come from Beloved sleeping with Paul D.?
7. Denver figures out who Beloved is. What will happen when Sethe learns?
8. Does Beloved harbor anger towards Sethe?—she halfway chokes her in the Clearing. Will more malevolence arise?
9. Will this family ever manage to find peace?

the witch's trinityThe Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman
In my historical novel, set in Germany in 1507, a village scapegoats its women, including the elderly main character, for causing an intense famine.
1. Will Güde’s family starve? It’s winter and there’s famine.
2. Güde’s daughter-in-law is cruel to her. What might she do?
3. Güde’s friend Künne is accused of witchcraft, of causing the famine. Will she be executed?
4. A friar arrives to help find the source of the bad luck. Will he create more danger for the elder womenfolk?
5. Throughout the book, Güde sees witches and believes she flies out at night. Is this real?
6. Künne taught Güde about a pain-killing herb. Can Güde dispense it to people who are being burned at the stake?
7. Güde’s son leaves with the other village men on a hunting party. Will Güde be safe without his presence? And will the men return with food?
8. Frau Zweig acts like a mother to Güde’s grandchildren, although she is infertile. What trouble will she cause for the family?
9. What will happen to Fronika, the woman from a neighboring village who also falls under suspicion?
10. Will Güde die at the stake? Will other family members?
11. This village is torn between Catholicism and old pagan ways: Which will win out?
—E.M.

R e s o u r c e s

THESE BOOKS are generally about plot and structure and how to construct a fiction narrative that is not overly complex.
Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

*This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Writer.

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