Multiple Plot Threads: Connections and Image

One of the fun things about plot threads is that, like a herd of zebras running from a predator, they’re quite suited to making it hard to tell exactly how many there are and which patterns are part of which one. This gives us a lot of tricks to play with, like making our own memory loads easier, making it look like we have more balls in the air than we actually do, or giving an air of deceptive simplicity to one or more of the current situations.

For instance, instead of just having two plot threads that run in parallel over a certain chain of events, we might actively connect them. Maybe they’re based around the same circumstance, maybe one is directly caused by another, maybe both tie into the same person’s plan…. either way, when we connect them, we stop looking at them as two separate plot threads and start looking at them as two (somewhat frayed) parts of the same thread. This way, it’s harder to lose one of the original threads, because anything that dredges up one thread will drag up the other with it—but to someone who doesn’t recognize the connection, they might still seem like two separate threads, both for purposes of puzzling out what’s going on and estimating the complexity of the situation. (I’ve always liked the idea of looking like I have even more threads running than I actually do, though it tends to result in me appearing to have exactly as many threads running as I actually do because somebody’s missed a couple of the smaller ones.)

On the other hand, there’s merely making two plot threads look connected, but actually having them serve as two entirely (or almost entirely) separate chains of events. This trick is good for easing the minds of people who are expecting a big hairy mess, for seeding red herrings and trick-plots, for hiding twists, and in general for any goal involving taking advantage of people’s interest in reducing things to their simplest possible form. Usually, this just involves something that creates the appearance of a connection. Most often, that something is timing; people have a common tendency to associate close proximity with causality. Just because one thing happens right after another doesn’t mean the latter caused the former, and just because two things happened to the same person doesn’t mean it’s part of a unified plan to go after that person. But if people want to think that, who are we to stop them?

Faux connections, or for that matter lacks of connections, can also be implied by other characters. We all know it’s no fun if our characters know everything, so why not have their mistakes play to our advantage? (I personally favor having some right and some wrong, and just making sure that their logic makes internal sense even if their conclusions are off.) The characters implying the connections or lack thereof don’t even have to be doing it on purpose, though it’s a lot easier if they are; they might say something that just draws out a certain conclusion. One character who’s clearly involved in one plotline saying something sufficiently ambiguous might do the job; I once went haring off on conspiracy theories about one NPC because I misunderstood his alluding to something that had already happened as making a threat for something that might happen later. Heck, for the truly suggestible, mentioning two factors in the same sentence can be enough.

Plot threads don’t have to just touch on occasion; they can be interconnected, or even just look interconnected. How much do you entwine your plot threads?

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