TIME ISSUES IN FICTION: simultaneous subplots

old-clock-1429258-mContinuing our discussion about issues of time that arise when writing fiction, today I wanted to explore some different structural approaches authors use to solve time-based dilemmas.


I have one instance of this in my Herezoth trilogy: in “The Magic Council.” One set of characters is in trouble, rather urgent trouble. Another group knows it, and is trying to get to them before it’s too late.

A common technique authors use in a situation like this–when two separate but linked subplots are developing at the same time, or one subplot is developing in different locations at once–is to jump back and forth between them.

  • This allows for some clever and fun use of mini-cliffhangers, if you want to use them
  • This allows you to bring each set of characters up to speed with the others, until their paths cross again.

I chose this approach in my novel. I cut from group one, who needs help, to the group searching them out. Just as group two figures out where group one is, I go back to group one, returning to their urgent issues. My hope was that when group two then arrives–whether or not in time–everything comes together.

Of course, this technique isn’t always easy. First of all, it is best used only once or twice (that is, with one or two subplots) in the course of a novel or series, simply because it’s SO far past subtle that it really stands out. It’s something readers will remember, and the draw of it IS how memorable and forceful it is. Overuse will cheapen it. A lot.

Then, as Charles Yallowitz pointed out in a comment on my last post about time and fiction, being as things are developing simultaneously, readers want equal space devoted to each location, group, or subplot. Sometimes that’s not easy or possible to do. Sometimes one location, group, or subplot is more interesting or more vital to the overall story arc than another.

Still, shouldn’t equal time passing mean equal page space? That seems logical, right?

We writers, of course, don’t HAVE to take the split location, “jump from here to there and back again” approach. We can always do like Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings” and write in blocks. This is especially true when subplots, like in “The Two Towers,” don’t physically come together at the end.


After The Fellowship of the Ring splits up at the end of the first book in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Tolkien splits “The Two Towers” into two sections. The first follows Aragorn and company. The second follows Frodo and Sam, who have the ring itself.

This was a very, very important structural choice. Its importance really shines, in particular, when contrasted with Peter Jackson’s choice to take the “jump here and back” approach in the movies he made of Tolkien’s books.

Both Tolkien and Jackson’s structural decisions allow them to emphasize what they want to emphasize. That’s my real point, and it’s something that I hope all writers can understand and learn from, regardless of whether they know anything about the Lord of the Rings.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep: that’s all you need to know. The first armed confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys in Middle Earth.

This is a battle that Tolkien didn’t seem to care much about. Because he splits “The Two Towers” into blocks, the battle takes place in the middle of the book. The tone is surprisingly light considering it’s a battle. The characters don’t display much angst, fear, or the need for overwhelming courage (at least, not when compared to the same battle in the movie.)

Tolkien cared a bit more about Frodo’s story, I think. About the One Ring and its evil, and what the ring symbolized. Tolkien (like me) was a Catholic, and I see in Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring, and his struggles against it, a disturbing reminder of the Fall: of the power of original sin and man’s inclination toward evil. Of sin’s power to distort our view of reality and weaken and isolate us.


In contrast to Tolkien, Jackson really wanted to emphasize The Battle of Helms Deep. He worked with the medium of film, and the battle provided an opportunity for stunningly visual effects.

So, Jackson did a lot to make Helm’s Deep more important to the story of the trilogy. He made a lot more ride on it. He even made the elves show up to help, something Tolkien’s race of elves would never, EVER have done.

He darkened the tone so much that it’s hardly recognizable as the same battle as in the book. He also, of course, made it the end and the high point of the movie version of “The Two Towers.”

Unlike Tolkien’s block structure, Jackson cuts back and forth between Frodo (with the ring) and the others (who are preparing for battle and who meet with a race of living trees, the Ents, who turn the tide of battle).

This way, he can use cliffhangers to heighten the tension and make Helm’s Deep feel more important. Feel darker. The outcome feels less certain simply because we’re left wondering here and there how preparations will come and what will happen. We’re taken away from that story to join Frodo, and we’re left wondering, “BUT…. BUT what about…?”

Simply put, Jackson changes the structure of the story to better suit what he cares about in that story, what he wants viewers to remember, and what he wants to make stand out.

Now, I know there are a lot of fans of Tolkien’s books who hate Jackson’s movies. Whether Jackson was right to alter what Tolkien emphasizes is a completely different discussion, and I’m not going there. I’m saying that, taken by themselves, Jackson’s structure and aims are fitted to work well together. As are Tolkien’s.

Their different approaches to time work in their own, varied ways.


16 responses to “TIME ISSUES IN FICTION: simultaneous subplots

  1. Jackson probably worked better for a movie format. Though, I’m still irked about the Elves showing up. I keep thinking Jackson saw all their shiny armor in the first movie and decided that he had to make the cost of them worthwhile.

    Something I do is chapter jumps and opening/ending sections. I use a 3-4 chapter section structure, so I can do some minor time and place jumps in the middle of them. My current book has 7 events going on simultaneously because everyone was split up. It’s a slight headache at first, but I chose the core events (2 of them) and made them bulks of the chapters. The other 5 get ‘peeked in on’ by giving them a section every now and then. Usually this section is to set the event up for absorption into one of the cores. It’s definitely one of my more complicated weavings and I probably won’t try it again. One thing I’ve learned is that doing something like this takes a lot of careful thinking even if it’s in the moment or through editing.

    • I love the solution you came up with for your problem. I definitely tend to think that devoting greater time to more central or important or interesting things is more important to equalizing time spent on all sections/subplots. And about Jackson…. Oh my GOSH, I’m so glad I’m not the only one who got peeved about those elves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • It’s also that some stories take less time and attention to tell. A character traveling alone through a haunted cemetery might need fewer scenes than a group of characters battling through a dungeon. As for Jackson, I know a lot of people who were annoyed by that. Those who support it seem to be my friends that either never read the books or read them after the movie.

  2. Great article. I prefer the block method of writing, as you keep track of each group as they head to their own goal or destination. You might lose your reader, or have them skip an entire section if was it was split in half instead.

  3. The first novel I ever wrote had a character being chased down by a group of people who wanted to kill him. I liked the story but hated the writing, so when I decided to rewrite it, I used a method quite similar to this one you wrote about, although it is the main plot and not subplots. I switch scenes between the protagonist and his people (or just him) and the antagonist’s group. By the end, you know both characters very well.

    I think the challenge of keeping the same attention allotted to each group is a benefit; it makes you dig for deeper details in characters you might not have cared to investigate as much.

    I always love your articles. It’s a shame that Jackson did the LotR series so differently. You made some great points using that as an example. Sometimes authors use books and series for examples that only seasoned writers will understand, and I’m left going ‘?’ when I could be going ‘!’ This was very graspable. Definitely a ‘!’

    • Glad you enjoyed it!!!! I love how you and Charles both present awesome cases for and against allotting equal time to each group or plot. The choice depends on the individual story and writer and what should be emphasized, I think.

  4. Great post. I used the old “meanwhile, back at the ranch” approach in my latest middle grade, SKULLHAVEN. It was kind of a “tongue-in-cheek” approach, but I had to let the reader know what was going on at the same time in two different locations with different characters. It was kind of a fun way to approach it. And you’re absolutely right about the potential for “cliff-hangers” when using that strategy. Great post.

  5. Reblogged this on lauralifejournalism and commented:
    thanks, another great article to share with my students

  6. Time issues have always been a bear for me so I avoid any issue where TIME becomes a central factor. Still, your ideas are very helpful, and I have a special folder in my email box, especially for writing. I’m STARRING this one.

  7. Pingback: TIME ISSUES IN FICTION: simultaneous subplots | Just 4 My Books

  8. This is a nice article for writers. I too am writing in my blog. Looking forward to more such articles.

  9. Helms Deep is an excellent example. Now imagine if we were talking about a real historical event, not just a work of fantasy. Two different people reporting the same thing in different ways. There’s a lesson here not just for writers but for everyone.

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