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How do you track several plot lines woven together?

I usually run 2 or 3 plot-lines in parallel, so I detail those plots each in a separate document. But as the book goes on, it is sometimes difficult to make sure all those "threads" are woven together nicely because I have to manage 2-3 mini-books instead of one.

Any advice? I try not to rely on memory alone, because I tend to forget things I don't write down.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I'm a visual person. I have a large whiteboard which I used to draw graphs, flowcharts, etc... If you're limited on room, like I am, take a picture of your drawing before you erase it and keep it as a digital file.

You could also try the technique displayed in a lot of police investigation shows: note cards and/or pictures taped to a wall with colored thread to show the connections between the characters/events.

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5  
I outlined my latest with a (wide) spreadsheet. Time goes down (my story is mostly chronological). Various story locations are columns. Each cell has a very short who and what "Joe finds the hidden message". I've started using the cell color to tie the plot threads together. –  Adrian McCarthy Feb 24 '11 at 21:18
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Hmm, I wonder if there's an iPad app that displays such a "police investigation wall" :-) might be a cool way of doing it. –  Ido Tamir Feb 25 '11 at 10:24
    
There's a good one actually. It's called Index Card. It has a good interface for storyboarding, different colors for threading, and can sync with Dropbox. –  Gabe Willard Feb 29 '12 at 20:33

Notecards or post-its with chapter or scene summaries are a big help. You can lay them out on the floor or pin them up on the wall to get a visual of your various sub-plots. I know others who create more of a flowchart for their plots, and there is plenty of free flowchart software online that can help you with that.

I personally prefer to write parallel storylines in-place, in roughly the order I want them in for the final book, rather than trying to write one subplot all the way through, then another, and so on. This keeps everything fresher in my mind and helps with pacing, as I explained in this answer.

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This might sound a bit odd, but have you considered using project management software? The problem of managing parallel story lines is a lot like managing task dependencies in a large project, and dependency tracking, timeline shifting and so forth are what PM software is designed for.

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J. K. Rowling used an interesting tool. There is an image of this on the internet at http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/73653. (Google J K Rowling Plot Spreadsheet.) She made a huge paper chart, which you could implement in an excel file if you were so inclined. Each row of the table is a single month. (You could use a week or a day as needed.) She had a column for each character (e.g. Ron, Hermione, etc.). In each cell of the table, she recorded what the character was doing at that point in time.

It occurred to me that a chart like this could contain far more detail than is actually presented in the book. You could fill in the chart first, and then choose which details to include in your narrative and which to leave out. For instance, Hermione appears out of the blue with some polyjuice potion at one point. Rowling chose not to include the process by which she decided to do this, found the recipe, overcame obstacles to making the potion, etc. On the other hand, Rowling had to giver her enough time to go through that process, so the potion appears late in the school year. You can work out plausible time lines this way.

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+1 for real-world, successful example. –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 20 '13 at 8:27

It sounds like you need to create and manage a timeline. Something you might consider is using a spreadsheet to keep track of the activity on each sub-plot. Each row is a different sub-plot or the primary plot, and each row is a pre-determined time period. If you story take place over the course of a few days, then each row becomes a single day. Track what is happening in each sub-plot on any given day and then you can see where they start to intermingle.

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"storYboard" software lets you add plot lines (which are called strands). Then you see it organized by day and by strand. This feature is available even in the free version. (sorry if this post repeats.)

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Can someone add a link to this application? Just searching storyboard doesn't bring up any relevant results. –  Alenanno Apr 5 at 22:42

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