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When the Plot is Too Busy

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 22, 2020
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The plot is the spine of your story, the scaffolding upon which everything will be placed in order to create a full experience for the audience to immerse themselves in- be it a movie or a comic or a novel.

Just like the spine, however, there is a limit to how much narrative weight it can carry- how many things you can pile up on it before it's either buried or it collapses. If too many plot lines are presented, if too many plot devices are thrown at the audience, then you're running the risk of confusing or even losing them altogether.

Each plot line usually requires specific characters to be the focus. Since you can't have more than one or two main characters, usually there's an A plot and a B plot: the A plot is the main story, focusing on the main characters, and the B plot is a complementary substory usually involving secondary, supporting characters.

If the story is well written, the A plot and the B plot balance each other out well, and together they progress the story in a whole, organic manner: the A plot helps us get to know the main characters and the B plot the supporting ones, while the action pushes the story forward from different angles, until usually they converge for the third act or the final arc of the third act.

Usually the A plot takes up more time than the B plot, but they both have enough to ‘breathe’ so to speak, in order to become interesting and engaging and serve their function in the story.

When is a plot too busy?

Naturally when there are too many subplots. If there's an A plot, a B plot, a C plot and even a D plot all crammed together in a time length that is good enough only for an A and B plot, or even only for an A plot. If that happens, every single subplot suffers. Before the audience can be invested in one, we have to cut to the other, then ping pong to the third one and also make allusions to the fourth one. it is as distracting and off putting as an infodump, only at least with an infodump the audience feels they're being introduced to something coherent.

Now, if you're tackling a series, be it in movies, comics or novels, you have more time to develop the story, and you can afford more subplots. This is why some books are nearly impossible to adapt for the big screen, and why the MCU needed so many movies to present one massive story.

It's very hard sometimes not to include subplots we really love, but ultimately offer little to the main story and can happen off-screen without issue. But it has to be done, just like we don't present all our world building and all the details we have researched and know about our story's setting in the story proper.

How have you handled plots? Ever felt they may be too busy or had to wade through a busy plot of a story as part of the audience?

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comment

anonymous?

hushicho at 1:35PM, Feb. 23, 2020

The MCU did a terrible job of setting up their story, especially to anyone who knows the actual story the original medium told decades previous; the same is true of Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, virtually all ensemble works of the past twenty years. We have hit a point where writers are more concerned with moments and meandering than actual storytelling. And while it's fine to meander and let things develop as you like if you're doing it for yourself, if you're trying to work on mass appeal, that's not the answer. There has to at least be enough focus to feel like the plot is moving a little, if not a lot. That, or you should just make it a slice-of-life story or iyashi-kei or something from the beginning. Episodic can work...but that also requires, if not a conflict, then something that can be resolved in an episode, with time left to add some fleshing-out of the setting and characters.

bravo1102 at 3:21PM, Feb. 22, 2020

Whole ensemble casts can be done without boring and confusing the reader with countless subplots. Everything fits together and compliments every other thing. It is all pieces of one puzzle not just a bunch of randomness that somehow relate to that main character as he wanders through his life. The path doesn't have to be a straight line but it all has to meet somewhere and things have to happen as opposed to winding on and on like some crazed sculptor painting your ceiling. "When will you make an end?" "When I'm finished!" and years pass and there's still only bare bones.

bravo1102 at 3:15PM, Feb. 22, 2020

If you are doing a long form like a web-comic or a novel you can feel free to stretch out and let the subplots go on and on. Just pile on the characters as the pages go on and on and on and probably lose the original plot as the subplots pile up but don't worry you have hundreds of pages to get to everything. Who needs conclusions or climaxes just let it pile on and sometime before the entropy wipes out the universe something might actually happen as opposed to another subplot being trotted out and another gaggle of characters get fleshed out. You have hundreds of episodes and pages to do. Welcome to long form anime series where they take the material for 12 episodes and make it 120. Beginning, middle and end. If something else happens to the characters, it can be its own story.

usedbooks at 1:22PM, Feb. 22, 2020

I feel personally attacked. XD I think juggling is part of an ensemble cast series. It can feel too busy if you try to focus on too many characters and plots at once. You have to be able to successfully change focus. Ensemble series can feel like several stories, but the trick is to find reasonable stopping points between episodes and figuring out when to focus on which characters. I sometimes like to run an A and B plot at the same time. I often have an important "B" that I need but is too short/shallow to stand alone. Finding the right "A" for pairing is often really difficult.

Avart at 7:49AM, Feb. 22, 2020

Great article! I can't stand suddenly changes in plot or events. It's OK sometimes but doing so too often is a bad decision IMO. Having too many characters is another thing to handle with care, I can barely remember just a few and if they aren't memorable... well, things start to feel tedious.


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