Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Have you lost the plot?

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers.

I have a chaotic mind and a tough time focusing on one thing at a time. I'm an erratic thinker with a short attention span. I often wonder how I got from one point in the thinking process to another. I'm a disorganized author.

When I sit down to write, my thoughts are scattered and my energy races off in several different directions, the result of which is a complex story with more than one plot line. These are the types of novels I mostly enjoy reading.

The challenge with a complicated story and multiple plot lines is the tendency to introduce the reader to a large cast; Stieg Larsson's series comes to mind. In Hide and Seek, I chopped out 14 characters during the editing process; enough to star in a novel of their own. I was still left with 41. I don't know what the optimum number of characters is. Each one in Hide and Seek had a purpose, and each earned their place in the story, but I would have preferred to write with a smaller cast.

A larger cast is more difficult to memorize, at least until the framework of the story is understood. This was part of the reason Dragon Tattoo took me several attempts before I stuck with it. If an author makes a reader do too much work, the reader might give up and move on to another book.

Another challenge with parallel plot lines is getting the threads to merge. In Madness and Murder, my two plot lines merged well and clues were dropped early on to show the reader how they would blend. I left the reader with questions, and the promise they would be answered. It's not always easy to get sub-plots to merge, as I've discovered with my new novel, Stone Cold, a current work in progress.

Stone Cold has a much smaller cast, but the sub-plot has grown legs of its own and taken over the main plot. I'm left wondering whether to cut the main plot and use it in another novel, or continue to try to blend them. Both plots have emerged as strong stories. As an author, I'm wondering what my readers might prefer. I love the complexity - do they? As the storyteller, I must choose how to tell the story, but a wrong choice could fail to draw the audience into the world I've created. I've agonized over it for weeks.

Reading authors such as Stieg Larsson can be work (and well worth it, once I got past the challenges he presented). I imagine writing his books and keeping track of the immense cast was not easy, but each character moved the story and he knew how to tell it. Authors have voices and stories in their heads, but who knew getting them on paper could be so difficult?

Authors: what traits of your personality make writing a challenge for you?

Readers: How complex do you like your mysteries and thrillers? Does a story with more than one main character and more than one plot line make it too difficult to follow the action?


  1. I like complex plots, both as a reader and writer. But like everything else, too much complexity can be overwhelming, and every reader has a different level of tolerance.

    As an author, I have to know how my story lines will come together before I ever start writing. It's the only way I can keep it realistic.

    But in this digital fast-moving world, I empathize with your chaotic thoughts and inability to focus. I'm becoming more that way myself, and I blame the internet. :)

  2. So true, LJ - the internet is a major distraction. I get so much writing done when my i-net access is impacted.

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  5. Jenny, after a long day of editing fiction, when I sit down with a novel in the evening, I like to be entertained. I don't want to have to keep notes of all the characters and plot lines. I found I just couldn't get into Girl with a Dragon Tattoo for that reason. Frankly, I thought Stieg Larssen could have used a good editor! (She says, ducking! LOL)

    I also like to identify with and bond with one main character - I don't want my allegiances divided. I want to BE that character for the length of that novel, and participate in their world, from their point of view. It's more satisfying for me.

    I like subplots, as long as they tie in with the main plot and don't override it. And I really don't like to have to keep track of too many characters. Give me a 2-3 strong ones and a few minor, supporting or antagonistic characterss, and I'm happiest!

    To me, the main purpose of a novel is to entertain. And we all have shorter attention spans these days, and most of us are exhausted after a long day!

  6. I think either most people have a short attention span these days or publishers & movie/TV producers keep TELLING us most people have a short attention span these days. It's possible that it's the latter. Otherwise, I don't know how to explain Stieg Larsson's success. I mean, 9 paragraphs to explain how a character got his nickname? Who in the world wants to put up with that?

    I do like complexity in my plots, however. I can have a bunch of characters running around, as long as there are only a handful of major ones. The simple tale of "get from Point A to Point B without any subplots or other plot lines" has to be superbly written for me to find it memorable.

  7. I enjoy creating and reading subplots because I think it gives the story both depth and realism.

    Regarding the cast of characters... I began reading the first novel in a series by a very successful author. Although I plan to return to the book at another point, I had to put it aside. There were more than 21 characters mentioned in the first chapter. I have very little time to read these days it seems, so when I do, I like it to be effortlessly entertaining.

  8. Peg, considering how our lives are getting busier and busier all the time, with more and more new novels filling our TBR list, it seems doubtful to me that you would pick up that book again...? Just sayin'.

    Writers need to hook us busy readers in the first few pages, and I'd advise introducing no more than three important characters in the first chapter.

  9. I agree with you, Jodie, I'm unlikely to pick up a book I've set aside. However, I did go back to Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo, and then bought The Girl Who Played With Fire, so it can happen. I didn't venture on to the 3rd book in his series - 2 did me in.

  10. But, Jen, would you have gone back to Dragon Tattoo if it didn't have all the buzz around it? It became kind of a social "must-read".

    I don't think most of the novels we all write are going engender that kind of reader perseverance on a large scale, so we need to be kind and considerate of the readers, I think.

    Editor's mindset: "Don't clutter your novel!" Sure, have a few good subplots, but don't get carried away with too many of them or piles of extra characters for readers to keep track of. You can always use some of those extra characters, ideas and subplots in another novel. Just speaking theoretically here, of course! :-)

  11. Jodie, I did only go back to Dragon Tattoo out of curiosity. I'd normally only try a book once.

  12. As a reader, I like complex plots, but I don't like a large cast of characters. You're right in that if you make readers work too hard, they'll give up on the book. I'm reading to be entertained not memorize who is who. Your comment made me wonder how many characters are in my first book so I went back and counted. I've mentioned 39 people by name. I don't think you're off having 41 in your novel.

  13. I decided to chop out all characters (by name anyway) who had only 1 scene, and managed to get down to 41. This way, I knew they were all critical to the story.

  14. Hi Jenny - great question. And of course a complicated answer! It all depends.
    1) It depends on the story itself - hard to imagine a Tolstoy or Tom Clancy or George R.R. Martin book without a healthy, recurrent dose of "Who the heck was that and what are they talking about?" It's part of the fun. It can drive me nuts and searching for an appendix sometimes, but I love it.
    2) It depends on execution. If it's done with discipline and for purpose, then yes. If it's sheer laziness or self-indulgence - no. A bloated cast of characters can either lead to too many sub-plots, many of which lead nowhere, or too many characters sitting around doing nothing, which is too much like real life to be fun.
    3) It depends on the reader. Personally, I tend to like complexity in the books I read but sometimes a nice simple narrative is much appreciated and because of the nature of the story is more appropriate.

    I have noticed of late a tendency for more and more books to go first person narrative to drive the immediacy and connectedness with the reader. And by its nature tends to be less complex - only one point of view.

  15. I've noticed that tendency, too, and I must admit I quite enjoy reading books written in the first person. I also like it when the author uses both first and third in the same book, as does Harlan Coben.


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