How Plotlines Add Dimension

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.

Protagonist’s External:

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.

Protagonist’s Internal:

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.

Relationship/B Story:

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. 

Society/World:

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. 

Influence Character:

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.

Undercurrent 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. 

 To learn more about undercurrents, you can check out my posts here and here.   

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. Fawkes

Resident 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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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Action Scenes, Character Arc, Characters, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] Writers Helping Writers suggests you have a minimum of three plotlines in your story. These plotlines run adjacent to the primary storyline. Before you feel overwhelmed and feel as though you need to write three different novels, think of the ways you can augment the main story through supporting characters and your protagonist. […]

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[…] you’re in the planning stage, September C. Fawkes looks at how plotlines add dimension to novels, Kathryn Craft shares 8 ways to unblock your scene’s potential, and Elaine Viets […]

Dawn
5 months ago

Excellent information. At first, I thought this was going to be about subplots, but this is much more interesting. I never purposely planned for various plotlines. So far, I’ve been lucky to end up with at least three. Next time, I will make sure. Thanks!

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  Dawn

Dawn,

Thank you! I do think a lot of writers probably naturally add at least three plotlines eventually–because the story will feel “off” until it has three. But it’s helpful to know about to bypass the struggle and to write more intentionally.

Best wishes with the writing.

julie brown
5 months ago

Such a helpful and timely article for me. I was struggling with whether I should make the love interest the A storyline or the issue between my MC and her ex-husband which is it at the core of her want vs need dilemma. Now it’s clear – the romantic element is the subplot. That’s why I call my genre Women’s Fiction with romance appeal. The MC always has a wound to overcome that shapes her character arc
September, I save all your emails/newsletters for future reference and inspiration. Will forward this one to all my writing buddies!

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  julie brown

Hi Julie,

Thank you! Another way to look at it is the B story will feed into the A story, more than the other way around. Sorta like the B story is the littler fish that the A story fish eats. At least that helps me!

Karen Sargent
5 months ago

Thank so much for this, September. As I read through your explanations, I analyzed my plot lines. The analogy — length x height x width — makes a lot of sense.

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  Karen Sargent

Karen,

You’re welcome! Yes, sometimes I work with writers (or even with myself), and I’ll try to add a type I already have, and it’s not working. You need at least three different types before you can build off any one type–because you need three different “measurements.”

Ingmar Albizu
5 months ago

This article was really helpful.
This one is a keeper.
Thank you, September.

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  Ingmar Albizu

Glad to hear!

Best wishes with the writing.

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago

You’re welcome! So glad it is helpful!

Kay DiBianca
5 months ago

I love this article, and I can see how multiple plotlines will keep readers interested in the story. I bookmarked this page for future reference.

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  Kay DiBianca

Hi Kay,

Yes, it will give the book some variety, which will help keep them interested. It’s hard to shoulder through external plotlines over and over without another type–draining and repetitious for readers.

Karen
5 months ago

This is so pertinent to me right now. I have a three-plotline story and I haven’t been able to decide whether it’s women’s fiction with a romantic subplot or a romance with a strong inner conflict for the heroine.

I’ve read Snyder’s “Save the Cat” and was wondering what the B story is if your A story is the romance.

But this post helps me see much more clearly where I’m headed with my heroine and where to “put” all three plotlines. Yay!

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  Karen

Hi Karen,

So glad the timing of this post worked out for you! Yes, that was something I used to be confused about as well–until I realized the B story must be smaller in scope but yet not as personal, otherwise, it would be the A story, in some sense–if you get what I mean.

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
5 months ago

This is genius! Thanks for this breakdown, September :).

September C. Fawkes
5 months ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

You’re welcome! I’m glad it is helpful.