What a great question. One of the most common remarks I make on manuscripts relates to weaving more threads through the book (which really means, keeping track of your threads).
Novels in progress can be overly ego-centric via the main character, with secondary characters standing around like hand-maidens ready to serve. This can create both a claustrophobic atmosphere and a one-note plot. So grabbing hold of secondary characters’ plots threads and pulling them through creates texture and interest.
Of course, there are other kinds of threads: character, metaphoric, thematic. These are as important as the plot threads. What I’ve been noticing lately is how good sit-coms are at repeating small details to a large effect. I was just discussing with my daughter Isabelle the Seinfeld episode where Elaine breaks up with her boyfriend and he calls her Bighead. She finds the comment ridiculous, but when she goes outside, birds keep flying into her head. A passer-by comments on how the birds just can’t seem to avoid her. On a recent HBO sit-com, the boss is upset that a girl at work is exposing her midriff. When he tells her not to, she accuses him of calling her fat. There are several other scenes with the boss feeling politically incorrect about weight and women because of his faux pas, each increasing in hilarity because of the echo, with the viewer happily connecting the dots. The show ends with him falling off of a building and grabbing his employee’s bared stomach fat to hang on for dear life.
On the opposite hand, I’ve recently seen two shows where the script opened up all kinds of plot threads and then just let them drop. The first was the new Spiderman musical on Broadway. The second was the film Black Swan which was “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing,” although probably not “told by an idiot” as the line from Macbeth begins. Both had these and-then-they-woke -up-and-it-was-all-a-dream type of endings. I wanted to jump up and yell: “But what about those threads!”
The thing I find most helpful for keeping track is to simply bold words on my computer draft that I want to pick up later. It might be a simple character detail, like nail biting, that I want to remember so I don’t show the character later peeling off stamps with her long fingernails (consistency of character). Or maybe everyone in the surreal high pressure school bites their fingernails (thematic thread) or rebels against the demands of beauty (metaphor/theme), or she decides to be a hand model and needs to stop, but can’t so she goes to a twelve step program where she meets the girl or man or dog or scissors of her dreams and lives happily ever after (plot thread). Any technique that notices the opportunities in front of us on the page will work. One book I can think of that does this brilliantly on every level is Holes. Other techniques/thoughts?
Such a great question. I love it when a thread comes at me with the power of a David Ortiz crushed home run and I can find a way to work it into the story. You are right that this only happens during revision–at least for me. In a current project, I was searching for a my narrator's special skill or talent. His father dies in the novel's opening scene. Somewhere along the way (third or fourth draft, perhaps?) I came across a wonderful poem by Linda Pastan, where she compares the Five Stages of Grief to the stages in baking bread. This discovery changed the whole novel. Suddenly my main character was a baker. Then it turned out his father taught him to bake; it was something they shared. Then the metaphorical aspects became obvious: bread as the staff of life; making something out of almost nothing (yeast, flour, water), the way the dough grows and rises when you tend it carefully, etc.. Kneading bread also allows the baker to express rage without hurting anyone …the possibilities are endless. For me, finding the thread is a combination of Kelly's randomness, Ron's divine intervention, and then the careful hard work of weaving in the thread in a delicate way. It makes me think of that beautiful song Judy Colllins sings: "Oh, had I a golden thread…and a needle, so fine…I would weave me a magic spell of rainbows divine.." (or something close to that) (Peter, I'm sure you can supply the song's title.)
Liza, Kelly, thanks for your insight into this.
I'm far from analytical, but I've discovered over the years that it helps me to do some detached analysis during revision. I'll do chapter by chapter graphing–checking to see if a theme or plot thread or a character(prominent or secondary) is use to good effect.
I once gave one of my Hamline MFAC students an assignment to do a similar graph in order to double check how well he was attending to various themes. The student (Hi Bill!), now a grad of the Hamline MFAC program, instead sent me a glorious Excel spread sheet that at a glance revealed what chapters focused on which theme or plot point, where they came together, what ones somehow disappeared from sight. The left side of the table was a chapter list, while across the top each column was designated for a theme, or character, or plot point. It's a marvelous tool for keeping stuff straight and for understanding which threads, etc. are crying out for more attention or begging to be cut.
Thank you for these responses. I was the secret poster. Liza, you speak of finding the thread, what practical ways did you then comb through the book in revision of find where to place it? Kelly suggests bold type to spot the threads, Marsha suggests a spread sheet (egads!), or is it simply intuitive? I know this seems nit-picky (but since we just had nits in my family, what the heck!). And Marsha what does your graph look like? Can you describe this in more detail? I have recently finished another revision to my book, and am interested in ways to look at these longer projects. Again, many thanks.
Yay, Molly for finishing a new draft!!
I am in the process of revising, as well, and am looking at the threads. It's been different for each novel. One I used post-it notes following each thread at a time. I put the post-its on the wall first to see how they all ran together (like Jack Gantos' pic book grid).
With this novel I am simply reading it with one thread in mind–for ex. I've decided it would show more change in character if the main chr. doesn't like the stray dog at first. So I am reading it and only changing those sections. I will then re-read it with the idea that the girl is physically unfit and grows stronger as the novel progresses–so I have to revise little moments all over the place. It even makes her think differently.
The process of revision is a game you have to figure out how to play, and it's different for each person and for each book.
Hope that makes sense.
I used the giant Post-its-flip chart paper for a lot of stuff–time lines, family trees, etc. My graphs look like a line with lots of cross marks. I make cross lines for chapters. If I'm graphing some plot point–say, progress in finding a missing brother–in each chapter section I make a mark on the upper or lower side of the main line, depending if the protagonist has moved forward in the goal or taken a step backward. Too many marks on one side of the line or too rhythmic a pattern is a signal to get back in and fix things.
Yes, a lot of it is intuitive, Molly, BUT it's surprising how often something like a graph (or other favorite artifact or mode of analysis) can show how one fools oneself. You think you're attending to something (plot point, theme) but it turns out you're not. Or, even better, you see that a whole different theme or plot point has been pushing to the surface. Few of us can be detached about our own writing. These sorts of thread-separating tools can help (though they too are vulnerable to the writer's bias).