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August 24, 2019

The Plot: Linear or Branched

The Value of Foreshadowing

We have all read novels that were very well written and well crafted (plot line). Is there something, a characteristic they have in common that we can use in crafting our own stories?

The linear plot is like a ladder. As the story climbs, events happen in a straight timeline sequence. Something happens then events move forward. Another thing happens and again the plot moves ahead. In the linear plot, there are no flashbacks or distracting side plots. Characters do not have to be one-dimensional, but due to the simplicity of the linear plotline, they often are. All character development in the linear plot occurs in the present. To put it more succinctly, there are no surprises here, folks. It is the easiest plot to write and the easiest for a reader to follow if he or she does not die of boredom and toss your novel after 20 pages. Too many new writers who are anxious to get it done and over with, take this easy route only to find that agents and/or publishers pass on their project.

The branching plot line takes the reader up, down, sideways and twists his or her mind into a quandary. It will move into the past (flashbacks) and then bring the reader back to the present. Characters who dot appear to important come back later and force the reader to think about where you were and how did we get here. It is tricky writing, fraught with anxiety (the author’s) and takes some practice and a whole lot of rewriting and revising to get it right. The tricky part is recognizing where you left those “plot holes” that make you journey preposterous and how to fix them on rewrite.

Avid mystery book aficionados in particular are always trying to “figure it out” long before the writer (you) is ready to reveal. How many times have you recommended a great mystery to a friend only to have them tell you they figured out “who done it” by page 25? That is rarely true if the branched plot is well scripted with plot hints (foreshadowing) done well.

Do not be afraid to take your reader down paths with seemingly dead ends, think of those maze games you played when you were a kid. However, always leave them a good foreshadow to think about.

A foreshadowing on page 10 cannot be too meaningless or too esoteric and cryptic that on page 100 the reader does not remember it. The reader needs to at least guess that you just dropped a hint, but can’t be too obvious or the reader will know where you were going with it. It should have that “AHA” quality. The reader is able to say, for example, “So that’s what the woman with the red hair was all about in chapter 5!”

One method I found that works for me is to add my foreshadowing after the novel is completed not during the first draft. Usually by rewrite #2, I am getting a handle on it. It is easier then to identify where I am confusing my readers. I then go back into the manuscript and add my foreshadowing. My character development is completed by then and I am secure in where and how I need to proceed.

It is also important to have a regular (weekly) critiquing group to run your twists and turns past. A weekly group that has an intimate knowledge of your manuscript will find those flaws in what seemed logical to you when you first wrote it. A multi-branching story line that moves from one place to another is difficult to write. It’s like juggling 10 balls at one time and keeping them all in the air, but worth it in the end. Outlining sometimes help keep things in perspective but be prepared to have at least 4 or 5 rewrites before you get it to where you want it and it is ready to submit.

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