In addition to vast worldbuilding and epic plots, SF/F is often known for its friendliness towards ensemble casts: main casts that feature a large number of characters. Ensemble casts often allow us to experience the story from multiple sets of eyes on every side and tiny knot of the conflict. On occasion, ensemble cast-led stories will make it difficult for the reader to pinpoint who exactly the protagonist is. And sometimes, there isn't a protagonist. Not in any reader-experienced sense, anyway.
Maybe Game of Thrones came to mind with this, maybe epic sci-fi like Dune, or fantasy, like Stormlight Archive. They're all masterpieces in their own way, featuring broad casts of distinctive characters navigating their arcs through a plot they're hopelessly entangled in. Everything someone does affects someone else, and each person has, on (mostly) rotation, their own moments to shine where their arcs peak or plunge. Fun for readers--
Rather torturous if you're a writer looking to craft a story with a robust cast. And not exactly the fun, emotional-ride kind, either.
But even if you're not a writer with a story led by a main cast big enough to fill a school bus, I'd like to think there's still something for you in here: even a rather singular-focused narrative could be broken down into the technique of bracketing. A narrative with subplots or more than one theme, anyway.
So what's bracketing?
Say you lay out the whole plot on a piece of paper, in a single, straight line. Just the plot beats, whichever ones you find pivotal and necessary.
Then go back to the start of the line and consider if any of the subplots or themes begin there. Maybe in a singular-lead story, it's an arc in the form of their relationship with a certain character. Or maybe it's an arc concerning their competence in their current situation. Maybe it's — Quidditch, or whatever the equivalent is, if you're writing a school story. For whatever reason, every school story protagonist seems to be considerably good at the main sport of the school. Whatever it is, draw a bracket on the line where it begins, and another where it ends. (If you do this physically with a pen and paper, multicolored pens are probably best).
Then repeat the process as it goes along. This should work even in singular-led stories because characters generally have more than one arc in each story. They probably have several, and if you're writing an ensemble-led cast, they'll probably just tackle one at a time. However, ensemble casts are more likely to have arcs connected and in a back-and-forth with one another. Dumping it all onto a page like this will hopefully help to visualize the messy, complicated thing that is a plot with additional subplots.
Here's an example: Character A fails in their duty in one way or another, and this causes them to reel, giving them a motive of recovering their honor and sense of capability. In the search for that, they meet Character B, kicking off a new bracket for the both of them. They hit it off, inspire one another at the end of whatever arcs they had beforehand. Character A then...swears themself into the service of protecting Character B, say, completing their original bracket and starting a new one alongside Character B. Then maybe we kill off Character B, having Character A fail for the second time. This will end Character B's brackets for good, or perhaps leave them unfinished, to be continued by the characters they left behind. B's death will spur Character A on another bracket, another search for their new purpose, or fulfilling their last one, just through a different person. Or something like that.
(Bonus kudos to anyone who figures out the arc I'm using in that example).
Each bracket plays off another, and you can see the spread of subplots throughout the story for pacing, as well as the cause and effect of each character impacting the world they travel through in the story.
Hopefully, this helps in visualizing the plots of entangled stories, whether during the outlining process or in revisions afterward — or even just for dissecting your favorite stories!
is a writer and self-dubbed professional daydreamer. Her work has appeared in Unpublished Magazine and Paper Crane Journal, among others. She is also a staff writer at Outlander Magazine.