On Monday, Ann and I watched a British movie called Centurion. We… weren’t exactly sure what story they were trying to tell. We were both kind of at a loss to figure out what the movie is really about, and the best I can come up with is that it’s trying to tell too many stories all at once. On the one hand, it’s about the focus character—first his quest for vengeance, then his less grandiose struggle for mere survival, and finally his love for a woman he meets along the way. But it’s also about the lost Legio IX Hispana, the inability of Rome to subjugate the Picts, and the political machinations of Roman Britain. In other words, for a 90-minute movie it’s just too much.
Now, this post isn’t actually a deconstruction or review of that movie, and I’m somewhat picking on the writers, but it gives me a launching point for today’s topic. And that is this: When you’re getting ready to tell your story, make sure you know what it is. Said another way: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
I don’t mean you can’t have subplots or multiple weaving main plots. You most certainly can, as long as you know what the story is you’re trying to tell, you remain primarily focused on it, and you communicate it to your audience. This doesn’t mean you can’t throw your audience a curve ball and change what you present as being the story, as long as it’s a natural evolution in the narrative, you planned for it all along, and you provide a proper conclusion for your actual story. China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun is a perfect example of what I mean.
And if you’re telling a multi-part story, or think you might be, you need two main stories to tell for each part: the overarching one and the individual one of each piece. If you’ve ever considered writing a series of novels (for example) you might have heard the suggestion to make each book stand by itself, because you can’t control how a reader discovers your series. Assume that I’m echoing that advice here, because discovering an ongoing series in the middle (without realizing it) and not being able to follow along is extremely frustrating. I think the Harry Potter and Star Wars series do this well; conversely, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix trilogy, and The Hunger Games series do it poorly (although I thought Catching Fire did this a little better than Mockingjay).
Depending on the length of your story, you might need or want subplots to feed into the main story, and that’s not only fine it’s probably desirable. But keep in mind that these subplots really do need to feed into the main story and not detract—or distract—from it. A short story, for example, has no room for subplots. Anything longer needs them. Usually, these subplots will come from supporting characters (because, presumably, the primary plot is about the focus character) and will often expose their backstories and be a part of why they become a part of the main story. And, really, the most important subplot in a longer piece, at least in genre fiction, and if it’s not already the primary plot, will almost always be the motivations of the primary antagonist.
This is a problem that even I run into with some of my story ideas. For example, off and on over the past few years a friend and I have been developing a webcomic; the characters are designed, the world is mostly built, and the subplots are largely lined up. I even have some story arcs to take the characters through (my friend is the artist; I’m in charge of writing). What I lack as the storyteller, though, is an overarching story. Sure, since it’s a webcomic I could just string along a bunch of unrelated story arcs, and for a while I think our audience would be okay with that. But at some point everyone, especially I, would want to see the story go somewhere. So since I haven’t figured out yet what my story is I’m not ready yet to begin it. Once I do figure it out, though, you’ll be among the first to know.