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Weaving A Narrative

Weaving by KaneDWilliamsA story is more than its central plot tenants. It is more than the broad strokes of its grand events and dramatic moments. It is a woven tapestry of differing narrative threads and layers that weave together to create a cohesive whole. Yes there will be the macro arc of the greater plot that directs the narrative, but there will also be subplots running parallel to add depth and filler scenes that connect events, showing the progress of time. There will be passages that advance specific plot threads or develop back-story that have nothing to do with the main arc events but are nonetheless an integral part of the story whole.

Many authors will focus on their main story arc to the exclusion of all else, they will track their characters’ progress through the major plot points from beginning to end. Now don’t get me wrong, the ability to focus is an important skill in writing and vital in achieving good pacing within the novel, but too narrow a view can result in neglect of the other potential narrative aspects that can enrich a story. It’s all the extra scenes that help to give body to a piece of writing, working in conjunction with the main plot, they allow for moments of character development and exploration, side notes that reveal something about the world, or to provide a moment of entertainment and interest during downtime of the main arc. Often they can serve to complement the main plot, heightening an already tense moment, or providing some surprise opportunity that turns out to be connected to the main story.

Necreopolis (cover)Necropolis by Dan Abnett is full of examples of this overlapping narrative method. On the surface it is a sci-fi military fiction story about a regiment of soldiers that becomes embroiled in a civil war. The macro plot follows the war progress and the siege of Vervunhive, but there are a number of other plot threads that overlap within the story. There is the conflict between the regiment’s commander Gaunt and the general leading the defence due to a past clash, the political manoeuvring of Commissar Kowle, frivolous court marshals against vital officers, all set against the greater plot that is itself played out in dozens of individual battle scenes with different groups of characters.

This combination of storylines gives a real sense of place and scale to the novel, creating a vibrant world of interacting plotlines that seems much more real than if the story followed a single arc. It expresses the chaos and confusion of war, all the while weaving a gripping story from different threads. As the main arc progresses so do the other plot threads, building the tension, providing obstacles to be overcome and creating a much richer and more diverse narrative than one that just focused on the siege.

Such a method also helps ground the characters and establish them as real people with goals and drives, giving them presence beyond the plot. After all, characters don’t just sit around in a room saying, “Okay, so how is my life affected by plot event x,” they have their own lives and stories within the macro arc, rivalries, personal goals and problems to deal with. This can help the author to create believable characters that appear to be going on with their lives even if we weren’t looking. The ideal format will present the macro plot as an event in the ongoing character’s life instead of falling into the trap of creating characters that only exist to fill a function in the story.

Woven Center by Astrantia01

It’s important to understand that not all drama and excitement need come from the main plot arc. Thinking that can lead to an author putting less effort into a transitional scene because no major plot event occurs, instead of spending time to make it interesting. Every chapter or passage in a novel should not only have a purpose, but have the effort put into it in order to make a person read on, to find it interesting for its own sake rather than because something relevant to the plot occurs. This is where the other narratives come in: little problems, subplots, and other narrative threads that bring some excitement to the scene, making what could have been a bland but necessary segment into something more. Another passage from Abnett’s series shows the Tanith regiment preparing for an invasion and having an argument with a logistics official about not having the right kind of ammo, not only does this provide an entertaining snippet for a prologue scene, but it links with the macro plot and escalates the situation when the troops are forced to fight with limited supplies.

Gardens of the Moon (cover)It’s scenes like this that build the character of a book and the author should feel free (within reason) to explore the opportunities their story provides. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series is riddled with diversions and tangents in its story, some relating to the overall story but others delve into the background of characters or follow some incidental detail that branches off into a new plot thread. Little touches like what Bauchelain and Korbal got up to in the siege of Capustan or Iskaral Pust’s efforts to seed a lake with fish in an effort to avoid his wife, provide moments that peak the reader’s interest without infringing on the main plot of the books.

While these narrative elements can help to bring life to a book, there is always the need for balance against the macro plot and the effort to make a cohesive story out of the different threads. Ideally they should complement the main arc, woven around and through it without pulling the story too far off course, those that are relevant should naturally segue into the main events and those that aren’t should find a place between plot points. It’s easy to come up with stories and ideas that can supplement your main story arc without breaking step, drawing from the characters is the primary way to do this. Look at their motivations and goals, think about what stories they could already have been involved in and how it could sync with the macro plot. What problems do they have, what effects or opportunities does the macro plot bring to them? This is the area to mine for things that will create conflict or add drama to the story.

Not all books lend themselves to this style of storytelling, nor all points of view, it’s obviously easier to manage a host of subplots and side stories with an omniscient narrator than a third person one. Yet even the smallest addition can help to flesh out the book. And for those authors who work at it, weaving different plot threads together and putting time and effort into each scene, it can pay off in creating a dynamic and engaging world that feels so much more involved than just a progression of plot, it becomes a story.

Title image by KaneDWilliams.

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