Plot, Story Arc, Themes, Uncategorized

Emotional Threads, Plot Threads

Any story is made up of a unique mix of threads. These threads could be just about anything depending on the genre, audience, and themes, but for my purposes here we’ll talk about two basic categories: emotional threads and plot threads. We have emotional threads made up of characters’ motivations, loves, fears, struggles, and growth; and plot threads made up of conflict, choices, twists, disasters, outside forces, and triumphs. The way these threads weave together form the themes of the novel—the abstract ideas our story is exploring, such as love, selfishness, war, identity, grief, good vs evil . . . the list could go on and on.

These elements need to form a cohesive whole. You might think of your storytelling as braiding. Or making one of those friendship bracelets out of embroidery thread. (Or weaving a tapestry, but who actually knows how to do that?) You’re not using every strand at the same time, but you hold on to all of them the whole time as they take turns. If you leave one out for too long, it’s not consistent and balanced. So these themes (and the conflicts they create or stem from) should run all the way through your story. Conflict especially can be difficult for some authors to weave through from beginning to end. A series of mini-conflicts, especially if lacking a unifying element, will not suffice for a novel. You need one or two main conflicts that drive the book, cause distress and curiosity for the reader, and aren’t resolved until the end. If a conflict doesn’t come into play at the very beginning of the book, you can foreshadow it a bit so that when it crops up, it doesn’t feel foreign.

Plot threads and emotional threads are equally important. If we can feel and understand the narrative characters’ motivations and reactions and choices, if we can feel like we’re in each scene and invested in their emotions, then the twists and turns of the plot will feel more natural. Think of your plot as the skeleton and everything else as the…everything else. (Ha!) Your plot is what everything else hangs on, but by itself it won’t feel fulfilling. It’s the characters who make it real, and it should feel like the characters are driving the plot, not the other way around. If you’ve figured out some themes and character motivations, your conflict will become more clear and lend itself to a clearer story arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution).

Tie everything together. Some books tend to feel a bit disjointed, like it’s a lot of not-very-connected scenes all put together. The themes and the different story threads (like magic, politics, grief, romance, adventure, class differences) need to run through the whole book. Don’t drop one thread just because you’re focusing on a different one for the moment. As a reader, I don’t want to feel like maybe I missed the resolution to a problem or maybe the author forgot about something. If any element is ignored for too long, you run the risk of your readers either forgetting about it or fixating in frustration on the fact that it’s gone missing, and maybe wondering if they were wrong about it being an important plot point.

If one of your threads keeps getting dropped or you can’t find a way to weave it throughout the book, consider dropping it altogether. Maybe this isn’t the book for it. Maybe it’s a great idea and you love it so much that it could be the seed for your next book. But if it doesn’t contribute to the overall story arc and themes, it might need to go live in a separate folder for awhile until you can give it a different home.

But if the thread is relevant and you simply need to focus elsewhere for awhile, it’s not too hard to remind readers of a currently silent thread, or reassure them that you haven’t forgotten about it. It can be as easy as a character asking another what’s going on with {fill in the blank} and the other giving a brief answer, or the narrating character worrying / daydreaming / remembering a moment regarding that thread. Just enough to keep it fresh in our minds and help us feel oriented enough so we can focus on the current action.

Above all, you want to avoid completely interrupting one thread to focus on another—don’t make your readers feel like you had this short story you had to throw in there. Connect everything. This is where the shrunken manuscript technique can come in handy, to mark the different elements of your novel and see visually how much space each takes up and if it’s consistent throughout. A good novel should always be driven by the reader’s curiosity, not by their confusion about dropped threads.

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