by Al Kalar
You’ve seen it dozens of times, most often in a disaster movie.
- The opening scene is on a businessman in a meeting. For whatever reason, he has to get out of the meeting and fly somewhere.
- The next scene is a happy little family. Well, maybe not too happy since the two pre-teen kids squabble all the time. They’re getting ready for their vacation at Fun World in another state.
- Then the fighting married couple. He’s a traveling salesman looser and she’s a shrew. He storms out of the house with his luggage. Does it contain a bomb?
- Then the square-jawed ex-cop heading off to some convention or other.
- Then the vaporous sex goddess off to meet her agent.
- And the blonde, properly attractive Tess True Blue who likes square-jawed guys.
- And on and on.
You can actually follow these people because each one is unique and visually distinct. Not one even closely resembles another.
Eventually they’ll all board the doomed airplane and start the real adventure as fully developed characters that you, hopefully, care about.
Aside from the fact that a slow “disaster movie” start will probably lose most modern readers, let’s examine the problem of parallel story lines.
So, let’s write this in a book with no pictures. How many names will you remember after 6 short vignettes? If the 7th chapter starts with the name of the first chapter character, will you even recognize him (he was the businessman in the meeting) unless the author drops some pretty hefty reminders?
I won’t remember his name, especially if it’s a common name that is not terribly distinctive to me personally.
Carrying off parallel plot lines is hard without the luxury of a movie projector. The reader may, like me, have a hard time remembering names or plot business. Heck, I have to check my dog tags every morning to remember who I am. Multiply this by 4 or more story lines and you’ve got a real hodgepodge in the mind of the reader.
Most readers can handle two plot lines, especially if the “cast” of main characters is kept small. Three story lines is a stretch. More than that, and most readers will get lost. Who was doing what, when, and where?
“But Al, but Al, when I wrote these stories I had no trouble keeping them straight at all.”
Yes, but you lived with them constantly for months or years. Your readers only wants to visit for at most two weeks, and then move on to another book (perhaps your sequel?).
It’s all about attention span
It’s all part of the “attention span” problem every author faces. Too many characters or too many plot lines result in reader confusion.
So, resist the disaster movie syndrome (unless you’re producing a script for one) and instead be kind to your readers. Don’t confuse them too much or they’ll throw your book into the trash (or the bit bucket in the case of an eBook) and look for an author who can entertain, rather than confuse and bore, them.
Keep it tight, memorable, and exiting, and your readers will reward you with sales, recommendations to friends, and may even purchase your next book.