Questionable: How Do You Focus on One Plot When Your Book Has Two?

CarolC asked:
You mentioned you needed to focus more on the Nita and Nick romance plot and less on the Cthulhu plot. Could you expand a little on how you do that? What makes the romance the main plot? My Cthulhu plots tend to take over.

The things that make the romance the main plot are that the major events and turning points are about the romance, the theme is tied to the romance, and the climax is about the romance.   Okay, that sounds obvious, so let’s look at this using Nita as the example because ARGH that’s all I think about these days.

Here are the turning point events:

Beginning: Jimmy gets killed by a Cthulhu minion, and because of that Nita meets Nick

Higher Stakes: Nick saves Nita by smiting Rich, a Cthulhu minion, and Nita has to accept the supernatural and Nick as future Devil.

Point of No Return: Nick is poisoned by Cthulhu, and Nita has to deal with a series of new Nicks as she fights Cthulhu.

Crisis: Nick is kidnapped by Cthulhu’s minions and Nita goes to Hell to get him back and put Cthulhu down.

Climax: Nita defeats Cthulhu and commits to Nick. 

If this is Nita vs. Cthulhu, then Nick’s irrelevant except as a complication, a subplot.  If this is Nita vs. Nick, Cthulhu is the complication in their love story arc.   Pick a lane, Jenny.

So now that you’ve looked at the events that make your turning points, answer the following questions:
• Who’s the protagonist and what is her/his goal?

• Who’s the antagonist and what is her/his goal?

• What is the main conflict/central story question?

• What are the turning points?

Nita’s Cthulhu plot:

  • Nita’s goal is to keep her island safe for the people who live there. Cthulhu’s goal is to take over the island and use it as a power base to become Devil, exploiting the people for his own ends.
    • The conflict is Nita blocking Cthulhu and Cthulhu fighting back directly against Nita to take power from her, aka “Will Nita defeat Cthulhu and save her island?”
    • The turning points: Nita shows up when Jimmy dies because Cthulhu ordered Nick killed; Nita realizes that she’s up against the supernatural when one of Cthulhu’s minions tries to kill her which ups her game, Nita is left to fight alone when Cthulhu poisons Nick, Nita goes to Hell to confront Cthulhu, Nita defeats Cthulhu.

Nita’s Romance Plot:

  • Nita’s goal is to save her island because it’s her only connection to humanity.
    Nick’s goal is to defeat Cthulhu because it’s his job.
    Their goals bring them together in the same fight against the same Big Bad, but they get in each other’s way because they have differing views of reality and how to proceed.
  • Nita and Nick begin to work together and are bonded even more through stress as Cthulhu tries to split them up because they’re more powerful together; they fight and negotiate as the start reversing the effects of Cthulhu’s plotting.
  • The central question is “Will Nita and Nick compromise to forge and protect a partnership so that together they can defeat Cthulhu and live happily ever after?”
  • Turning Points: Nita meets Nick when somebody tries to kill him and it’s her job to find out who; Nita accepts Nick as a partner when she realizes he hasn’t been lying about the supernatural; Nita sleeps with Nick and then finds out he’s been poisoned and has to work to accept and save him even though he’s somebody else (multiple somebody elses) now; Nita and Nick reconnect and commit just as he’s kidnapped back to Hell; Nita and Nick save each other, defeat the Big Bad, and live HEA.

Both plots have Nita as a protagonist and control of the island as a goal.  One story is a power struggle and the other is a relationship test; one story is about politics and the other is about love and trust in a relationship.  They both have most of the same events, the emphasis is just different. 

For a romance plot, I don’t need as many details of Cthulhu’s general plot for the island, I just need the moves that threaten the romance. I don’t need all the stuff that Nick does to defeat him or that Nita does to defeat him separately, I need to arc them working together.  The Cthulhu plot would make some crucial scenes in the romance unnecessary; the fact that they have sex three times has nothing to do with the Cthulhu plot, but they’re crucial to the romance since because of the poisoning, Nita has sex with three different Nicks who don’t remember each other or being with her before, so the struggle is to find the memory and the connection they had before.  If Nita defeats Cthulhu in the Cthulhu plot, she returns the island to safely.  If she defeats him in the romance plot, she’s done it by her and Nick working together which fosters a committed relationship having saved their island/home.

Short version: The events are the same, but the events don’t mean the same thing in the different plots.  That means I can cut the romance-only events from the Cthulhu plot, and cut the miscellaneous Cthulhu events that don’t directly affect the romance in the romance plot.  So the difference in the plots is where you find your meaning and put your focus.

Or approach it through character arc.  Look at your protagonist and see what the turning points in her character arc are:

  1. Nita is alone and cold and afraid for her island.
  2. Nita joins forces with Nick after she gains a new understanding of the forces threatening her island (supernatural); she’s not alone any more.
  3. Nita commits to Nick and sleeps with him even though he’s radically different after being poisoned and works with him and the team they’ve assembled to save the island.
  4. Nita goes to Hell to save the island and Nick, realizing that she belongs everywhere now.
  5. Nita defeats Cthulhu and returns to Earth with Nick, establishing a safe warm community for everybody, demons and humans (sanctuary city!).

That’s a relationship arc, not a Cthulhu arc.  She’s not growing and changing because she’s fighting Cthulhu, she’s growing and changing because she’s met Nick and connected to him and the team they’ve gathered, and in the process discovers who she really is, ready to become part of a committed relationship and her community.

Which is probably overexplaining. Argh.

20 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Focus on One Plot When Your Book Has Two?

  1. You never over explain, and it is always fascinating, even to a non-writer like me. Thanks for this.

  2. Oh, no! Not over-explaining.

    For what it’s worth, I am at work now and need to get back to that, but I have a feeling that this explanation is really going to help me with my work in progress! I definitely need to think about this more with my scene analysis post-its in front of me. Thank you so much for all the detail!

  3. Do you think the story could have worked with romance as only the sub plot? I know it would be an entirely didn’t book, but I’m curious at the drive behind you choosing the plots. Was it because the story mandated it, or because you had to pick a lane, and you picked the one that spoke to you most and crafted the story more specifically around it?


    1. It’s because the book was too long, and my agent told me it was overwritten. I tried cutting it just by taking out things that weren’t essential, and the book died; it was just flat. So I threw out that rewrite and said, “Okay, what kind of book is it?” and that meant that instead of taking out detail and texture, I was stripping out a plot, in this case the Cthulhu main plot, reducing it to a subplot. It’s going to make the book better by giving it better focus, but I am losing things I liked–like Mort–that really kneecapped the romance plot. In the end, I think romance always is what I revert to.

      1. And personally, I would be happy to pay for this book twice if I could get the “perfect” version and the overwritten version. I bet I would like both!

        1. The betas liked the overwritten version, but they’re all been reading me for a long time, so they’re probably open to more side paths in the story. I’m pretty sure the new version will be better, assuming I ever get the sucker done.

          1. I made chocolate chip cookies once and put in too many chips. It was more of a giant chocolate slab with chips of cookie dough. You’d think that would be good, but it wasn’t a chocolate chip cookie. Or a chocolate chip. It was just too much.
            That’s what I’m thinking Nita is right now.

  4. This is so great.

    Also, selfish of me as it is, I’m pretty happy to hear that Nick and Nita is still a happening thing.

  5. Re stories going flat: George Saunders talked about something like this in an interview he gave here in Oregon a year or so ago – about how when he removes dark or [can’t remember his words] certain other elements from his stories they die, even if he (Saunders) doesn’t initially want those elements in the story.

    I’ve badly paraphrased this segment of the Saunders interview, but the entire interview is a delight so its worth the listening time if you are so inclined. And I clearly need a refresher 🙂

    Re Terry Pratchett: This Nita-Plot blog post also got me thinking about Black Orpheus (the movie), which of course led to Appointment in Samarra, which of course led to even more Story Sources (Bertolt Brecht, Babylonian Talmud, huh!), which brought me to this wonderful discussion in an old Google Answer, where we get thank Terry Pratchett again.

    Writers are magic, but with web/internet rabbit holes, how do you get anything written!

    Here’s the Google Answers (from 2002), with its shout out to Terry Pratchett and fans:

    I will now attempt to focus, arghhh!

  6. People keep complaining that the MCU has weak villains. This post makes it clear that the reason this was the case was that the films were prioritizing the hero’s internal conflict character arc over the external conflict arc.

    The reason people were still complaining about it, though, is that having good villains is important if the broader world-building is the point, over individual character arcs. Each Marvel film was a relatively contained story, but if the audience was watching from a franchise point of view, then the lack of any one villain really mattering made the world feel thinner.

    This is why Thanos bucked the trend, because Infinity War and Endgame were about that broader world, rather than individual stories, so the villain and his plot couldn’t be lower storytelling priority.

    Batman can never complete his character arc, because that would mean getting over the trauma that made him turn to crime-fighting. So his stories are never really about his internal conflict. And that’s why Batman has the strongest rogues gallery.

    1. Yes, but Batman is also the weakest hero. That brooding billionaire thing gets old fast. That’s why I thought Keaton was the best Batman: he was wry. Still tortured, of course, but he had a sense of humor about it and he could be semi-vulnerable.

      I think that’s why the Marvel superheroes tend to be more interesting: sense of humor and vulnerability.

      DC has had some great villains, though. The Daredevil villain (Kingpin? D’nofrio played him) was outstanding, as was the Tennant villain in Jessica Jones. But both of those were this-time-its-personal big bads, one a doppelgänger and the other a nemesis. I think it’s the generic “I want to be evil and rule the world” villain that kneecaps a lot of the superhero stories. I really don’t care that much about the Batman vs the Joker, but I’m fascinated by Harley Quin vs The Joker. There’s something about an abuse victim picking up a ballbat and saying “My turn . . .” It’s personal.

      1. Batman has the strongest rogues gallery, but Batman also has the strongest ally community, as well. (Which is to say, he has the most kids, hah.) And, honestly, I do prefer the stories where it’s about Bruce and his found family, than about the strong villains. But that’s also a function of genre, where the noir detective is often the least interesting part of the plot.

        I don’t think a relatively weak villain is a problem, anyways. People complaining about the MCU villains did so because they were looking at the film from a different perspective. For people who are focused on the hero arc, those films are doing exactly what they should be. It would be like if someone decided that Nita was a bad story because Cthulhu was short-changed.

        The downside, I suppose, is that then the Marvel villains don’t get to be more interesting, with sense of humor and vulnerability. As for Kingpin and Tennant, that’s different, since those are for longform. They have the screentime to flesh everyone out. Cthulhu could get fleshed out if Nita spanned multiple books.

        1. Longform does change things. But they were both creepy on their own. Of course those are two brilliant actors, too.

        2. I personally keep wondering if that’s why the original Nita & Nick is “overwritten” … Jenny’s girls are actually sending up a set up for a series about Nick and Nita’s world, not a singleton. The original playing around with the concept started in reaction to an episodic television show…

          Or maybe just wishful thinking on my part?

          Poor Jenny. You’ve got your hands full wrestling this story and here I go suggesting you’re gonna need a bigger boat. Ignore me!

          1. I don’t have to make the boat smaller, I just have to throw some of the stuff overboard. Argh.

  7. Thank you!! And definitely not overexplaining. It might seem that way to you, but for those of us who are beginners it’s necessary information.

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