SUBPLOTS DEVELOPING SIMULTANEOUSLY…. THAT NEED TO INTERSECT
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.
THE LESSON OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS: TOLKIEN
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.