“How many plot lines are too many?”
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer here. There are some books that thrive on having such a narrow focus, showing one character grappling with one central conflict, while others are busier, lots of characters lots of conflicts and that’s great too. I think it all comes back to one question, “what is this book trying to accomplish?”
Lots of Plot Lines – No Problem
I think of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and how it works to capture the feeling and atmosphere of one moment during the French Revolution. While the main story centers around Jean Valjean, you also get the life story of most people that come into his life. What makes the plot effective is that once a major character enters into the story, their plot line is still relevant to the main story.
For instance, the Thénardiers are introduced when the protagonist Jean Valjean decides that he is going to raise Fantine’s daughter Cosette who has been living with the Thénardiers. That is not the end of their story though. Jean Valjean leave the Thénardiers and while it seems like their story might be over, it’s not. The Thénardiers throughout the novel come into contact with a number of other characters. Though their story is very much a subplot, they crop up again and again to propel the central plot line forward.
So, you can have a lot of different subplots in a novel without that becoming distracting, so long as they are relevant to the actions of the main story. Ideally, the subplot will conclude or wrap up just before or at the same time as the main plot at the story’s climactic scene.
The Romantic Subplot
One place where the most mistakes are made for young writers is in the romantic subplot. While it’s fun to have a romantic subplot, I’ve seen unruly romantic subplots take over the whole story or continue for the course of the novel, but then have nothing to do with the main conflict that’s driving the story. That’s usually a problem. If the love story that happens in every other chapter isn’t tied into the main plot, what is it doing? If it’s not adding anything, it can feel like a distraction.
So, now let’s talk about effective romantic subplots. My favorite example is in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This entire novel is so cleanly plotted out. So, The Hunger Games – a competition where teens fight to the death on national television – is not necessarily conducive to romance. Katniss is not looking for love, but when a competitor, Peeta, from her hometown publicly announces that he has feelings for her, Katniss learns to use this to her advantage. The viewers watching the Hunger Games are crazy over this potential love story and Katniss plays along. When she shows affection towards Peeta, game sponsor give her supplies and assistance to help both of them continue surviving the games. With that said, a romantic subplot in the Hunger Games already has conflict built into it. There can only be one winner and one of them will have to die.
So this is an instance where the romantic subplot is directly tied into the drama of the novel. It complicates the story effectively and is not distracting to the plot. In fact, it adds to the plot. It brings up questions like, if Katniss cares about Peeta, how is she going to be able to let him die so that she can win the games? Or because they are such an effective team, another darker question might be, is she going to have to kill Peeta to win the games? The subplot raises the stakes.
So how many is too many?
Now, finally getting back to the main question here. “How many plot lines are too many?” The answer is however many you’re able to effectively juggle. If you have a lot of confidence, you could potentially have a Les Miserables situation on your hands and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or if you want something more streamlined, there are plenty of novels that focus on just one central conflict. The important thing is that if you introduce a conflict in the novel is that you provide some kind of resolution or outcome.
For books in a series, often the writer will leave one loose end. That might be a conflict that may not be necessarily at the forefront of the characters’ lives, but something that has not yet been fully addressed and resolved, so that future books can tackle it. For example, the end of the first Harry Potter book, Voldemort is not dead, but temporarily vanquished. The novel is over, but you’re told that he’ll be back.