Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Intertwined Plots

Hi lovelies!

If you've been trying to comment on the last couple days posts unsuccessfully, it's because Blogger's been having a conniption. I've temporarily solved the problem, by changing to a Pop-up comment box instead of an embedded one.

And speaking of Blogger and conniptions, anyone else have issues with their Twitter buttons on their blogs?

Today, I'm going to feature intertwined plots.
To my mind, a story has intertwined plots when two or more plots:

are of equal/similar importance or take up equal/similar space in the story

are not entirely independent but drive one another
Plots are of equal/similar importance or take up equal/similar space

A couple years back, ensemble casts (large casts with no 'main' character) came back into style. You can see ensemble casts in tv shows like FRIENDS and in movies like LOVE ACTUALLY, VALENTINE'S DAY and CRASH. Since each character has his/her own life, issues, triumphs, etc, ensemble casts almost automatically give rise to intertwined plots.

Take the movie VALENTINE'S DAY- 19 characters show us what love us in their own different way. Every couple/character has a similar chunk of time in the spotlight. We don't spend half hour with the teen sweethearts and five minutes with the old, married couple.

On the flip, plots may not take up a similar amount of space or time, but are just as important. A few weeks ago I gave away a copy of THE SUMMER BEFORE BOYS. One of my favourite things was the intertwined plot. The "main" plot focuses on how a boy changes the relationship between two best friends. But there are also interwoven chapters about war, and women in war, because Julia's mother is in Iraq. Even though it's not the focus of the story, you can bet that this is every bit as important to Julia as what is going on in the here and now.

The same is true of the movie INCEPTION. It's an action movie and the majority of time is spent in the action plot, building a dream sequence that the team can infiltrate and acheive their goal. But even though it doesn't take centre-stage, Cobb's personal plot - he wants to get home to his children- is just as important.

Plots are not entirely independent but drive one another.


This is the case in CRASH. At first the characters are all seperate and distinct, and so are their individual plot lines, but eventually one character's actions lead to consequences for another character, and the effect keeps rolling towards disaster.

How intertwined plots differ from subplots

A subplot is a secondary or tertiary plot which doesn't (usually) have a major effect on the main plot. In TWILIGHT, it doesn't really matter whether Jessica dates Mike, Eric or Ben, Bella wil remain bewitched by Edward.

A subplot doesn't take up much time/space and happens largely in the background.

A subplot (usually) doesn't drive the main plot.

How does it work?

There is one main thing an intertwined plot needs: a point of connection.

In all of the cases I can think of this point of connection is one of two things: a character or a concept.

In SUMMER BEFORE BOYS Julia has two major things going on in her life. She meets a boy and her mother is in Iraq with the National Guard. These two things are both huge for Julia- she's never noticed a boy before, and there exists a real possibility that she may never say her mother again.

Intertwined plots linked around a concept seem to be more common in film and tv- maybe because of the large number of characters.

CRASH focuses on racism.
LOVE ACTUALLY and VALENTINE'S DAY both focus on love.
FRIENDS (surprise, surprise) focuses on friendship.

What they offer

Intertwined plots go deep.

Plots built around a concept offer a chance to see that concept from many points of view. In CRASH we see different ways in which people can be affected by racism: affluent black people, black people with power over white people, latino people, white people who want to do the right thing, middle Eastern people... An author/screenwriter could have zeroed in on anyone of these tales for a single portrait of what racism means. The difference between a single story and an intertwined plot based on a concept is like the difference between a lecture and a panel discussion.

Plots built around a character offer a chance to get deeper into that character. Characters, like real people, have a lot going on. Writers choose which parts of a character's life they will show to the audience. The advantage of the main-plot/sub-plot structure is that the audience gets more connected to a single issue.But issues don't line themselves up to happen one at a time. Life doesn't wait til you've finished struggle with your female issues to throw race issues at you. For this reason intertwined plots centred on a character can feel more real.

Why do intertwined plots work?


Clearly, I love me a good intertwined plot. But why? More to love.

In the stories built around a concept, you get to see five or ten points of view for the price (and effort) of one. And because there's so much going on, you get to picks the parts you love/agree with, and if there are parts that don't float your boat, they don't take up enough of the pie to make you walk away from the story as a whole. There's more chance that there will be a character who you strongly identify with or can understand. Added bonus: you learn from the characters you don't identify as well with until it's time for your faves to show up again.

In stories built around a character, you can feel lukewarm about one plot, and be pulled in by the other. Or your feelings about one may cause you to be more interested in the other.

Why they fail


I think that intertwined plots are very difficult to do well. This comes partly from one horrible and one passable attempt at writing them. And partly from seeing the result of an almost well-done intertwined plot.

When the focus is on concept, there are multiple main characters. Each of those characters has to be 3-D. They each need lives, problems, aspirations. If it's easy to fail with 3 or 4 secondary characters, it must be a million times easier to fail with 10 main characters.

When the focus is on character, there lies a danger in not developing one (or more)of the plots as well.

In either case, if the point of connection seems too tenuous, then it will feel like the story just runs in a bunch of different directions.

Take VALENTINE'S DAY, the biggest all-star cast in recent history that I can think of, and yet it didn't do that well. It's a movie about Valentine's Day, but the characters had very little connection to one another. So it ended up being like a guy standing outside a grocery store asking random people to tell him about love.

Anyone else out there totally beswotted with intertwined plots?

4 comments:

Marsha Sigman said...

I haven't had a chance to read The Summer Before Boys yet. It's the last week of school here and the kids are studying for exams so it's been crazy at my house. I cannot wait to read it.

I love me some intertwined plots! The movie Love Actually was incredible and is still one of my favorites. But I haven't done it with my own writing. It's hard to do and for now in my story the subplot works better.

Also, Blogger has been seriously sucking!

Sidrah said...

I liked the movies Love Actually and Magnolia and the sitcom How I met your mother. Haven't read any such good novels yet.

I'd the same problem with my blog -_-

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