When writing a novel, you need to use more than one plotline. In fact, most successful books need at least three. If they only have one or two, the story will feel flat, bloated, or repetitive, because the writer doesn’t have adequate variety to draw from. But it’s not enough to just pick any three plotlines. Only by picking three different types, will a story gain satisfying dimension.
Think about it. When we talk about dimension in life, we are usually talking about three elements: height, width, and depth. We aren’t talking about height, height, and width. Or width, width, and depth. We are talking about at least three different measurements. Sometimes time is added in–a fourth measurement, and theoretically, we could add more. But until there are at least three, the object is only two dimensional (flat).
There are at least six different types of plotlines.
This is the most recognizable plotline. It’s the “outer journey” of the protagonist. It’s Frodo taking the Ring to Mount Doom. Or Dr. Faustus making a deal with the devil for unlimited knowledge. Or the man who is trying to win over the love of his life. Often this contains the main antagonist, so that there is a kind of a back and forth between the protagonist and antagonist.
The second-most recognized plotline. This is the “inner journey” of the protagonist–how the protagonist arcs over the course of the story. This means that the antagonist is the self–it might be a flaw, weakness, or misbelief that the hero has to overcome, to become who she is meant to be. This is where the “inner demons” lie and fight back.
Depending on who you listen to, some teach that the first two plotlines are part of the “main story” or “A story.” Then there is a secondary story, the “B story.” As professionals like Blake Snyder and Robert McKee state, this is most often a relationship plotline. Usually this is about the protagonist and a love interest, but it might be the protagonist and a best friend, sibling, mentor, parent, classmate, or even rival. It’s a plotline about how a relationship develops, grows, or changes.
The reason the relationship plotline works so well, is because it fits between the protagonist’s external and internal plotlines. It’s not as extreme and far-reaching as the external plotline, but it’s not as intimate and deep as the internal plotline. Therefore it adds dimension.
The B story may not always be a relationship. But it needs to be something that is not as big and broad as the protagonist’s external journey, and not as deep and personal as the internal plotline.
In many stories, there is conflict within the society and world the protagonist inhabits. Luke Skywalker may have his own external and internal plotlines, but beyond him, is a whole war between the Rebels and the Empire. In Catching Fire, Katniss is pinned against tributes, but there is a plot playing out between the Capitol and the Districts. And least you think this is for only epic genres, in a Hallmark movie, a community business or tradition might be at stake. The society/world plotline is broader and even less personal than the protagonist’s external plotline. In a sense, it extends the story “above” the external plotline, because it follows groups of people, instead of one individual.
This is a plotline based off Dramatica. Other than the protagonist, there is usually a key, influential character. This is often who the protagonist is in a relationship with in the B story, or at least, a lead role in the B story. This character adds dimension because, unlike the protagonist, it is someone we are observing, more or less, from the outside. The audience isn’t as close to this character as the protagonist, but they aren’t as opposed to this character as the antagonists. This is a character whose power comes from influence–either influencing the protagonist and/or the A story (directly or indirectly). Because of this, the influence character may often have his or her own plotline–goals, hopes, fears, obstacles–through the story.
This is a plotline of my own definition, because I haven’t seen it defined anywhere else, though it has been written many times. The undercurrent story is a plotline that happens “under” the story the audience is seeing. Rowling uses this in every Harry Potter book. For example, in Deathly Hallows, the surface story focuses on finding and destroying Horcruxes, while the undercurrent plotline is about the Deathly Hallows. In Goblet of Fire, the surface story is about the Tri-wizard Tournament, but the undercurrent plotline is Barty Crouch Jr. trying to resurrect Voldemort. Another famous example is Sixth Sense, where Dr. Malcom discovers he’s been dead the whole time.
The undercurrent story is a plotline that usually touches the surface several times before fully surfacing at the end, changing the context of prior incidences. It may touch and influence other plotlines, but we don’t have a clear understanding of it until later. Because of the nature of the undercurrent plotline, it should be added as a fourth or fifth (or sixth) type of plotline–it won’t give the writer enough to work with as a third. It nevertheless adds dimension.
We have now defined six different types of plotlines. In order for a novel to have dimension, it needs to have at least 3 – 4 different types. Not more plotlines of the same type. And that’s how you add dimension!
September C. FawkesResident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on
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