Story Web Structure to “stay within reason” for the Novel & Short
by Robert W. Walker
When is a story going to get unwieldy and out of your control? When you begin multiplying; as in multiplying the number of characters to beyond the limit; as in multiplying the time shifts, geographical shifts, settings, and of course threads. Not always easy to tell where to draw the line, and every story makes its own demands but a recent call from a client I am doing editing and ghost writing work for brings one sure point home – any time too much of anything takes the reader out of the story or the flow as it were, it’s a bad choice. Now Steve was just talking about three pages wherein he feared he had unconsciously done alliteration atop alliteration. So let’s take that as an example of what not to do and how to recognize it when you see it.
Too much drinking water can’t be a bad thing right? But too much forced down your system at once becomes a poison. Too much of anything in real life is poisonous—yes, even chocolate or milk shakes, my friends. Take the same common sense approach to your number of themes your book is covering—main storyline with six sub-sets of storylines? Come on. Maybe you are trying to write two books in one, so separate them out and write two books and not one. Too many characters? We hear a lot of readers moaning and complaining about this, and if it happens in your story that you have creating too many storylines and threads, it is most likely you have also latched on to too many characters to carry the weight of so many themes and plots.
The danger is in not seeing when a novel is “all over the place” and not just with settings and the timeline but with the sheer number of characters we ask a reader to pay attention to—especially in a multiple viewpoint novel. We need to think Chief Characters keep to a minimum as in you can count them on one hand, and if not, if we are getting into two hands, that’s when readers then look for and want a flow chart or a listing of “principle characters” and maybe some idea of how they are related by blood or circumstance. Ever open a play and gasp at the cast of characters? I generally feel that when I open a novel, I don’t want to see a family tree on the inside cover directing me to where little Nel falls on the tree branch near the bottom. Once when I went off on a tangent about a character’s grandfather’s story within the pages of my main character’s “action” and “thoughts”, my then editor, a wise fellow indeed, said of this tangent, this five page flashback, “Write the grandfather’s story some other time in some other book but not here.” That stuck with me.
Being brief in a novel is like saying military intelligence, an oxymoron…so how do we stay the course of the main character and objective or thread of the book, sticking to the main storyline and allowing for a controlled one or two sub-sets of characters and storylines?
Think of the Soppranos TV program wherein many, many storylines evolved over the years of the show, and many, many characters came and went, and often went out—as in dead. That’s complicated long term but it is over years. Fast-forward to today’s hot show Trueblood based on Charlaine Harris’ series surrounding Sookie Stackhouse—and again you see a successful story with many many sub-sets of storyline and characters “fleshing” out those storylines, and as these are so successful whatever can Rob Walker be talking about! However, even in these stories that appear to go hither, thither, and yon guess what—all the separate storylines encircle like the spokes of a wheel ONE character and always come back to the magic number one: How does it relate to and affect one Tony Sopprano as it is HIS story, not anyone else’s. How does it relate to and affect one Sookie Stackhouse as it is not her boss’s story, although he figures in her story, and it is not even her vampire lover’s story, although he figures quite heavily into her story. No Trueblood is all about Sookie.
Picture Sookie’s face at the center of a universe of her making, and surrounding her are all those she surrounds herself with – friends, family, loved ones, necessary ones, and add the world she lives in—the setting—and those who come at her. All those secondary characters are encircling her – her brother, her grandma’s ghost, her shape-shifting boss, her friends at the bar, her enemies, and they are all only in the story as foils for her. Every divergent storyline, no matter how tangential, comes back to her and the story always reaffirms that this is not the cook at the diner’s story but Sookie’s story. All others in the tale are satellites that impinge and impact Sookie.
We flip the channel to House and guess what?
We switch to Grey’s anatomy and it gets confusing whose story it is, I grant you, but in the end Grey has her name in the title!
Moby Dick, okay, it’s not so much about the whale as it is Ahab’s story but Ishmael is telling the story…but truly this surprisingly poorly organized story with hundreds of pages of nonfiction on the whaling industry embedded proves my point. For all of Melville’s talent, he didn’t follow the simplest of precepts of organizing a novel so as to not allow it to get out of hand. Ever read Moby Dick in its original entirely? War and Peace for that matter? Classics are made of this—books no one can take for long and many of our greatest classics are flawed as in the ending for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wherein Twain loses sight of the fact that this is and was and should have remained Huck’s story and should never have been turned back over to Tom Sawyer!
A novel that shifts sets needs connective tissue between settings, shifting time needs connective tissue to let the reader know you are shifting, shifting point of view needs carefully placed connective tissue embedded, but turning over your novel to a secondary character begs the question why don’t you write HIS or HER story then? Keep asking yourself as you work through your novel “Whose story is it anyway?” And especially if you are crafting a multiple POV tale, “How soon can I get back to my #1 character and in his/her POV and out of #2’s head?”
Picture the character web on a page or in your head – your main guy or girl is at the center of this web, closest confidants, relatives, lovers, friends close in to the center of the web (picture their smiling faces) then an outer web of associates, fellow crime solvers, bullies, bosses, jerks (picture these) and at the outer edge dangerous types and enemies of one sort or another and especially the antagonist(s) and picture these wanting to get to her through her closest allies. No matter how far your story roams, she remains at the center of the story web.
I have been doing some updating of early stories and putting some original work up at the Kindle store, acting as my own publisher, but these details discussed here have been bandied about on some chat groups I belong to, so this is my take on them, and I follow this practice, and it makes for a far tighter, stronger story. If you were doing short stories this is even TRUER still.
Author of Dead On, City of the Absent, Absolute Instinct and forty seven other novels