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 wonder 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?