Untangling threads: Four questions to help you separate stories within stories

The art of finding and separating stories within stories.

Untangling threads
Finding the heart of your story can be like untangling threads. Image by Yu_Che/Shutterstock

Pinpointing the heart and soul of your story can take several steps. You might start off with an overall idea of how you want to structure the beginning, middle, and end of a chapter, an essay, or even an entire book, but when you put your pen to the paper, or your fingers to the keys, you might find that additional stories are popping up as you go along. 

You start reconsidering the path of your story. You may even notice that you’re suddenly incorporating several mini-stories into your overall plot. But are these new threads helping or hurting your book? How can a writer know if she should keep them, remove and turn them into a separate piece, or develop them into a bigger plotline that will run throughout the entire book?

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It can be hard for writers to see that there are multiple stories trying to live in one essay or chapter, especially when they’re so close to the work. To help you make those decisions as you push your story forward, here are the four questions you can ask yourself that will help you A) identify different story threads inside of one piece and B) decide whether or not to split them up or leave some in and tie them nicely together with your overall plot. 

1. Are there multiple themes in your work?

One of the first major questions you can ask yourself – whether you’re writing out the structure for your book or writing one story or chapter – is how many themes are present? 

There’s no magic number for how many concepts you should explore in one book, chapter, or essay, but it is important to remember the reader. Your reader shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by multiple competing storylines or themes. They should feel like they are reading one cohesive story or plot. 

Think of it this way: When you tell a story out loud to someone, you want to keep outlier information out. For example, if you’re recounting your first kiss, it wouldn’t be relevant to dive into a side story about a date your sister had last week or start talking about your teenage obsession with the history of chocolate; if you do, the listener’s mind will wander. If you’re reading through your writing and notice that there are a lot of tangents or new themes being introduced as you go along, you might want to work on creating a more focused structure to your overall plot. Ask yourself: If I were telling this story out loud, when would the reader’s mind start to wander?

2. Are there key details you left out?

Sometimes, when you begin to sprinkle mini-stories throughout your overall work, you don’t do those small story threads enough justice. Perhaps you left out significant details or glossed over the story, assuming the reader would understand what you needed them to understand before whisking them back to your main theme. You might have been trying to keep your writerly “detour” brief to avoid losing the reader’s interest, but you didn’t give them enough time to appreciate the scenery. 

When you’re in the editing phase and you’re reading through your work, put yourself in the reader’s position. Ask: Is there enough information here that will allow them to understand that side story and its value? Perhaps they will need to know more details about the setting or characters in order to make the tangent feel fleshed out. If you find you lack enough telling and meaningful characteristics to adequately flesh out the story, it probably should be discarded.

3. Should this be expanded?

If you see that you introduced an important mini-story and breezed right over it without giving it enough attention, you need to decide whether to keep it in and expand it or take it out. Perhaps you realize that a story you introduced can even grow its own legs and become its own important chapter or essay within your collection.

For example: You’re writing about your first kiss, and all of a sudden you mention someone you loved before, someone you never had the opportunity to kiss, and the reason why is unique, funny, or sad. You might want to make it a prelude to the first kiss story, incorporating it as a lead-in to the main story that you’re going to tell. However, if you can’t pinpoint a clear, concrete reason why this story should be told in this context, it’s time to remove it (or develop it into a separate work outside your manuscript).

4. Is it worth taking a step back? 

When you’re reading through your work, it may be helpful to step back and dissect what you put down on paper. Your writing might not match the structure that you initially outlined, and you might notice that you’ve strayed away from the initial plot and introduced new themes you want to explore instead. That’s OK. But it also might mean it’s time to go back and clean up your work’s structure.

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Writing is a process with many steps and many revisions. It’s fine to write an entire first draft of a book or an essay, just to cut it up into pieces and start all over again. Be patient with the structure of your story and always remember to put the reader first. What kind of reading adventure do you want to take them on – and what stories will matter most to them after they’ve read your final page? 

 

Jen Glantz is the founder of the viral business Bridesmaid for Hire, the creator of the blog The Things I Learned From, and the author of the Amazon best-selling book All My Friends are Engaged. Her new book, Always a Bridesmaid for Hire, published by Simon and Schuster, is available now. Jen is a freelance writer for more than 25 different publications, including Today.com, Glamour magazine, Prevention magazine, BRIDES magazine, and Bumble (the dating app). She teaches creative nonfiction and memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City.