Must Your Novel Have Multiple Storylines?

Nope. But it might be a better novel if it did.

That’s not to say single viewpoint stories can’t be successful. NYT bestselling author Harlan Coben has proven that repeatedly. While his stories almost always stick to a single viewpoint character, he’s been able to devise enough plot twists and mysterious connections to keep readers happy for at least thirty novels. Quite an achievement!

As I’ve often confessed to the students in my writing classes, I get restless sticking with one character for too long. I get tired of their single pallet of emotions, the sameness of their mindset, and the rarely changing role they play. Let’s face it, I LOVE writing bad guys! Who wouldn’t? They get to do all the nasty stuff normal people would never think of doing, and they can often laugh in the process.

But would I want to write an entire novel from the morally fractured outlook of such a character? No. I need good guys, too. And by “guys” I mean males and females. I love creating strong female characters to deal with strong male characters. I like players who bring different things to the table: background, ethnicity, attitude, and most especially problems. (I especially adore bad guys with problems.)

Problems usually result in conflict, and as anyone who enjoys good fiction knows, conflict is what makes stories interesting. You can have a great setting, a magnificent cast, even a brilliant musical score, but if there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

And that’s at the heart of the multiple storyline tale: a handful of memorable characters, each with a mission of some kind–to find, save, destroy, reveal, protect, enhance, or consume something–all run into the hero or heroine at some point and for some valid reason. It’s not just a three-ring circus, it could be a five-, six-, or seven-ring affair. Your only limit is your imagination. That said, I wouldn’t start with an epic. Do some short fiction first and thereby learn the ropes.

Keeping track of all these stories can be tricky, but I devised a fairly simple way of doing it, and I invite you to read about it here.

One of the nice things about having multiple storylines is that they don’t all have to reach a climax at the same time. Life certainly doesn’t work that way. For many of us, it’s a series of minor crises that come along one after another. Using a similar approach in your fiction gives your protagonists an opportunity to win once in a while. Or lose. Losing can be good, too. It keeps characters from becoming too cocky. Just ask Don Quixote.

You will, of course, need to pull at least two of these storylines together as your grand climax, and picking one from the beginning will make it easier to pace the overall story so the final clash will be rewarding for the reader, no matter who or what survives.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Must Your Novel Have Multiple Storylines?

  1. dorisreidy says:

    Your books always offer a satisfying gathering of plot lines and snipping of loose threads at the end. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  2. polinto says:

    You’re the master at this!

  3. joshlangston says:

    I love being flattered. But I’m smart enough to know I’m still a long way from mastering anything!

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