Untangling Plot Threads

I spent yesterday wrangling the unwieldy plot threads of one of my scifi WIPs. Just about all of them. It was intense work, but absolutely necessary if I wanted to, you know, finish the book.

Photo by Gurms at Flickr

My plotting was compounded by the fact that I hadn’t really worked on this story for nearly a year. Sure, I workshopped a couple of chapters over the summer with my writing group, but, for better for worse, this year has been about getting my historical romance ready to query (check) in addition to writing and revising a half-dozen speculative fiction short stories (check check).

Now, with those goals well in hand, it was time to turn my attention back to this particular story. It has a lot of potential—well, at least I think it does—but it also has a lot of problems, some of which I talked about way back in Exorcising Demons.

But it’s not hopeless, which I established after reading through the whole story start to finish. That doesn’t mean those 60k words are beautiful, mind you, but (I think) I can work with them.

The bigger issue is that I essentially have three versions of the story I’m trying to juggle:

Version 1 – my initial draft, with two viewpoint characters, simplistic plot, overblown romantic subplot, and mustache-twirling villain.

Version 2 – partially revised draft (note partially), with three viewpoint characters now including the antagonist (note shift from villain to antagonist), reduced romance, and more plot events of the variety “something cool happens here”.

Version 3 – the supercool idealized version that lives in my head, with new character quirks and backstories, set pieces, and ambitious socio-cultural details to be included.

And yesterday was all about resolving these different versions. Good times. Especially since I never finished resolving the second version with the first version. Note to self: Never do that again.

So how did I make it work?

1) Stew – I always kept this story in the back of my mind, stewing over the characters and plot until I had the time to fully devote to it. This is how Version 3 came to life.

2) Reread – Rereading what I had already wrote helped to clarify what changes had been made and what ones hadn’t, as well as gave me the confidence to tackle even more onerous ones. Also, the refamiliarization was essential for getting me back into this story since it had been so long.

3) Write – I actually tried to pick up where Version 2 left off and make the changes I had originally planned to while working in Version 3 details as well. Got about 4k in, then decided I really needed to start from the beginning.*

4) Outline – Yep, I basically sat down yesterday and wrote out a rough outline for the entire book, synthesizing elements from all three versions. And now I feel confident enough to begin the revisions in earnest.

*This is why I have trouble with Nano – I get to a certain point in a new story then realize that I need to step back and revise from the beginning. I don’t start over per se, but I tend to write a discovery first draft, usually a partial draft, until I really understand what my story is about. When that realization comes, I can’t make any forward progress until I resolve the issues that linger in the first part of the story.

I won’t say I have things figured out with absolute certainty – I’m sure I’ll be switching out plot points and what not, but for now, I finally feel I have a handle on this story instead of the other way around. Which makes me excited to actually dig in and make the changes the book needs.

We’ll see how much progress I make this December.

How did you work through a problematic plot? Have you ever had to straddle different story versions? How did you make it work?
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4 thoughts on “Untangling Plot Threads

  1. Laura Marcella says:

    My method is similar! I've had a problem like yours, but in the end I figured out I was actually telling two altogether different stories rather than two versions of the same one. That was a shocker, LoL.

  2. Gail Shepherd says:

    Writing an outline *after* completing a first draft is one of the best tools I know for getting organized. You really find the snags and holes that way. The story you're working on sounds incredibly ambitious. I'm just taking the plunge with my second book and doing a subplot, and even that feels hard to manage. Good luck!

  3. Steph Schmidt says:

    Number three is my kryptonite for trying to actually finish a story. Something about having the beginning just right has to happen the moment I finally reached the middle. Because whatever the first draft of the beginning was, its more me figuring out the character than something salvageable.

  4. Annalise Green says:

    Oh boy. So glad that you're writing about this because I think every writer goes through this at one point or another! I don't have nearly 60K on my current WIP, but I already have what are basically 2 versions floating around my Scrivener file, the biggest difference being between third person and first person, and a couple other plotting differences (in my case, it's to make it less complicated and more streamlined).

    But personally I think having different versions is a REALLY GOOD SIGN. It means that your WIP is improving!

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