Let me do something I usually don’t do. Let me write two Creative Writing articles in a row. Forgive me the laymen. Last week I wrote about ‘Melodic Writing’, a concept about layered writing I picked up from Virginia Woolf, and today I’d like to introduce another concept about writing: ‘Interwoven Plotlines’. I want to do this because today I woke up and picked up one of my novels from the shelf and felt like reading it for a while. ‘You still read your own writing, you narcissistic prick?’ Yes, I read my own writing. I’ve written it because it was fun, it’s still fun, I’m still reading it from time to time. And as I hadn’t read THE ALEX 9 SAGA for a while, I was surprised by some of what I found. This time I was positively surprised (I hope I am still able to write as good as I did), by how effective one of the most troublesome and intensive techniques I used was. I’m speaking, of course, of the Interwoven Plotlines.
Interweaving plotlines is a very common thing for a writer. You have a plotline, with a particular POV, characters doing their own thing, and then you stop and present a piece of another plotline, with another character and another POV, and then bring back the story to the initial plotline, and the initial POV, or maybe even a third one and so on. Why am I saying ‘plotline’ and not ‘storyline’? Because a storyline could mean a different story. Your B-Story or C-Story. A plotline is a different POV but could be the same story. Like two cars that are speeding for very different reasons (fleeing from a robbery and taking an injured party to a hospital, for instance), into the same intersection where they will crash. So, in my view, plotlines are not necessarily within the same storyline, but they could be. Now back to the interwoven thing. There are many advantages to the Interwoven Plotlines technique, here are some: 1) It enriches the story, giving you more background and diversifying the POV’s; it also allows the story to breathe and grow, becoming larger and larger as it implicates more characters and more events. 2) It helps the build-up towards an important event – as we see the points of view getting closer to this event we get emotionally involved and when it happens it will have a larger emotional impact. 3) It allows you to increase or decrease the rhythm of the story. Let me focus on this last point.
The rhythm of a story, in my view, depends essentially on two things: the action itself and the succession of plot-points. Plot-points are those moments that actually advance the story. You can have a high rhythm if you are describing an intense action scene, but you can also grab the reader by doing something that will change the relationship between the characters, like a kiss or an argument. When you interweave the plotlines you can always have one of those things happening. Or you can also stop one of those things from happening, by changing the plotline at the height of the emotional graph, for instance – what we regularly call ‘cliffhangers’. Let me tell you what I did in my novels.
In THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES each chapter was actually very contained – in the sense it almost reads like a sequence of short-stories. Each chapter has its own POV, never changing for that piece. So even though it is intense and goes to ‘page-turner’ status at some points, I don’t really use the Interwoven Plotline technique for rhythm in these books. That is deliberate. I wanted to have a slower paced story, slowly building towards the end, and so all I used were plot-points and action sequences to increase the pace. I had several storylines and plotlines, to enrich the story, but the pace was not much changed by this, I think.
In LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING the technique shows up a little bit more, one storyline is slower than the others and the whole story becomes more intense by interweaving the plotlines – so even though JJ Berger’s team is quietly having lunch with their allies, Maria and her daughter are desperately running away from their captors, going from one POV to the other changed the rhythm. Doing this I could also use the slower pace of one plotline to stop an intense scene and this way inflate a cliffhanger. Like this:
Maria closed the door, went around and sat behind the wheel. As she was about to turn the key and start the car, she heard a sound.
‘Shhhh!’ She whispered to her daughter.
Something was outside. They waited a moment. There it was again. A familiar sound. What was it? Hoofs! It was hoofs! And the next moment, at the entrance of the shed, they saw a figure that almost made them scream. A man, on a horse, with an AK-47 in his hands.
‘Coming into the square.’
‘Eyes on, 1-1. You’re doing fine. You have multiple subs 150 meters East.’
‘Roger that, Zero. Popping smoke.’
As I changed the plotline, I stopped one sequence and it became a cliffhanger.
All this may seem pretty obvious to you. But what I re-appreciated today was how I did it in my ScF/F-trilogy THE ALEX 9 SAGA. I actually have more than a hundred characters and dozens of plotlines in those 600+ pages and they are relentlessly interwoven. In some cases, a plotline doesn’t get more than three or four lines before I trade it. A normal editor would never let me go through with it. But it went through and it got published (alas, only in Portuguese, so far). The effect is of a roller-coaster. It is confusing sometimes and I bet some people get annoyed here and there, but in my view it’s worth it: it just doesn’t stop. The rhythm is tremendous. There’s always something happening, always action, always cliffhangers – big and small. It feels like you are falling over a waterfall, unable to stop. Some of it, I remember, was actually inspired by the TV series 24 – if you recall, the Jack Bauer thrillers were also relentless in their pace and used the Interwoven Plotlines very well.
I remember it took me a long time to intertwine the plotlines correctly. It was one thing that I invested a lot of effort in. I used a lot of foreshadowing, jumping ahead and coming back again – always to keep the pace very high. Also, the fact that there are so many plotlines makes you feel like the story is immense – it is epic. And when it works it feels awesome to me! I also used small plotlines, with characters that would appear and die in a few paragraphs or a couple of chapters, to intertwine with the MC’s plotlines. That way I could make cliffhangers almost as I pleased and always have action and plot-points on the page. I had at each chapter from two to six plotlines interweaving. It got messy at times! But also enjoyable, in my view.
As I write this today it becomes very obvious that I will again use this high-paced Interwoven Plotlines’ technique in the future for sure. It’s a lot of fun to write and to read, even though it takes a lot to get it right. I hope all this makes sense to you and that is useful. Writing is fun. I promise. See you around the next campfire.