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Marginal Notes

Your Two Plots

If you’ve read much about the art of writing, you know that your action has to change your main characters in some way if you want to engage and satisfy your readers. You can avoid pitfalls and take advantage of opportunities by thinking of this change as a separate, inner plot woven through your outer plot.

When your characters see something that changes how they view the world, that’s an inner plot twist. When they’re facing some conflict that’s tearing them apart, that’s inner tension. This inner plot can and should interact with the outer plot, but it has its own pace and logic.

Of course, a lot of good, well-written and fun novels don’t pay much attention to the inner plot. Classic adventure novels, from Dumas’ Musketeer stories to Dan Brown’s international puzzle quests, are almost purely edge-of-your-seat thrillers – all about the outer plot. And a lot of literary fiction – Virginia Wolfe, for instance – explores the development of the characters’ inner lives, with what little action there is forming more of a background. But even if a story leans heavily one way or another, it will be more memorable when it works on both levels. I’ve already written a bit about the need for some external action, even in the most inner-driven novels. The reverse is true, as well. The Da Vinci Code is a romp, but by the end, Robert Langdon has come in contact with a religious faith that leaves his world a little larger.

Even the ultimate outer-plot novels -- Ian Fleming’s Bond books – eventually give Bond an inner life. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond falls in love and marries – only to have his wife, Tracy, killed on their wedding day by Blofeld. In You Only Live Twice (the book – the movie is very different), Bond is mourning Tracy, drinking steadily, and slowly coming apart. The external story, in which he hunts Blofeld across Japan, is driven by his grief and helps him overcome it. The adventure is stronger because the outcome means something to the hero.

Of course, there’s more to managing your inner and outer plots than deciding which is most important. The two should complement one another. How to do you weave the two together so that you make the best use of both? How can you use your two plot threads as a storytelling tool?

One way is to make your ending more satisfying by having the same event wrap up both plots at once. I recently worked with a client whose near-future dystopian YA involved Mea, a genetically engineered young woman (she’s about 40% Neanderthal), who is trying to find her identity in a society suspicious of genetic modifications while being hunted by a secretive group who want to use her as a lab animal – a well-balanced set of inner and outer stories. Mea eventually manages to confront and defeat her hunters, but the story of how she’s accepted in her new home (and learns to accept herself) takes another forty pages to wrap up. Since the tension behind the hunt is riveting, it feels like the story is over once that tension is resolved, and forty pages is way too long for an epilogue. I suggested that the author use something that Mea discovers in the process of defeating her attackers to win the town over to her favor, essentially tying the two threads together.

Another way to make good use of your two threads is to surprise your readers with the inner one. Depending on how self-aware your characters are and how distracting your action is, you can hide how your internal story develops until the end. I’ve already written in detail about the plot of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, looking at how he manipulates what readers know and when. But the story is also a wonderful example of building an inner story without your readers realizing it’s happening, then springing it on them. If your main character has an unexpected moment of self-awareness near the end, then things your readers already knew will gain new depth and significance. That sense of a curtain being pulled away to reveal a story behind the story is always striking and satisfying.

You can control your pace by changing the focus from the inner story to the outer. When things get a little breathless, start paying attention to what’s going on inside one of your main characters. Let them pause and take stock, and you will be giving your readers a break from the action while still giving them the feeling the story is moving forward.

You can also understand the use of unreliable narrator in terms of inner and outer plots. Your unreliable narrator’s inner life is certainly at odds with the external action, and as I’ve written , you can use that difference to create tension. Margery Sharp’s The Gypsy in the Parlour tells the story of a mercenary young woman, Fanny, trying to take over a family farm. But it is told from the point of view of an unnamed niece who idolizes the woman. Sharp generates tension not only about the fate of the family but over how the niece reinterprets events to preserve her admiration for Fanny. Readers are driven to keep reading in part to watch the moment when the inner and outer plots collide.

Of course, you’re probably already writing both an inner and outer story -- it’s almost impossible to avoid. But if you’ve never thought of your story in these terms, it can be revealing. Don’t just focus on how your main characters are changed by the climax, think of how you’re setting up that change ahead of time. What is your internal plot arc? It can even help to write out two separate plot summaries, one of what actually happens, and one of how your characters’ internal landscapes change. How do the two feed one another? How much attention do you pay to each thread at any given time? Being in conscious control of your outer plot lets you make the best use of techniques that boost tension and drive readers to the end.

Treating your inner plot with the same conscious consideration lets you weave meaning through the story to make it stay with your readers long after they’ve finished the book.