Writing

Establishing and Satisfying Plot Threads

This post is 2 in the series: Setting Your Story's Direction

You might know the characters, themes, and setting in your story, but do you know which hooks are motivating your readers to continue? Each hook creates an open plot thread; readers are pulled in because they want to see them conclude. If you mix up your subplots or don’t close each one properly, you’ll end up with a cranky audience.

The Types of Threads

Threads are easy to tangle up because there are so many nuanced options, even for the same story. Let’s say we have a story about a little girl and a monster that lives under her bed. This story could have any of the following threads:

  • A threat: The monster is a danger to the girl and her family. The thread will open by demonstrating this threat to the audience. It will close when the family is either safe or eaten.
  • Their relationship: The monster and the girl will slowly build a positive relationship with one another. The thread will open by demonstrating that they are hostile to each other. It will close by affirming their new friendship or sending them on their separate ways.
  • A question: The monster invokes a mystery of some kind. The thread might open by demonstrating that strange things are happening in the house. It would then close by revealing that a monster under the girl’s bed is responsible or making it clear that the answer will never be revealed.
  • Personal growth: The monster or the girl have a personality issue that is holding them back. The thread might open by showing that the monster is small, cute, and friendly, but the girl has a crippling fear of it anyway. This thread would close when the girl overcomes her fear or succumbs to it completely – by becoming an inpatient at a mental hospital, for instance.
  • A goal: The monster or the girl have an important goal they want to accomplish. Perhaps the girl doesn’t have a monster under her bed, but wants one. The thread would open by revealing she has this goal and by demonstrating how important it is to her. It will close when she either gets her monster or getting it is no longer her goal.

These are not the only options. A thread could use anything that feels unresolved. Usually it’s a problem in need of a solution. Regardless, it always has an opening that hooks the reader and sets their expectation for that thread and a close that satisfies those expectations, releasing the reader from the hook.

Any thread should have multiple options for closure. The key element is certainty regarding the original hook. The thread could close as the family is saved from the threatening monster or as they are eaten by it, but either way we won’t wonder whether or not they’ll be eaten anymore.

Two threads can be tightly intertwined. A traditional murder mystery opens by invoking both a question and a threat. The mystery doesn’t close until the perpetrator is not only revealed but is also brought to justice. In the examples I used, I could also blur the line between the monster as a threat and the girl dealing with unreasonable fear. It might be uncertain whether the monster is really threatening or if she’s just fearful. Both of these aspects would need to be resolved for the intertwined thread to close. At the end, I would have to demonstrate that the girl doesn’t have an unreasonable phobia and that the monster is not dangerous. Or I could send her to a mental hospital and let the monster eat her family.

Weaving Your Threads Together

You’ll probably have more than one thread in your story. Identify as many as you can, and then prioritize them. Unless you have two that are mixed together, you should choose just one to be your central thread. The rest will be of secondary importance. Once you know your threads, you can decide how to structure them.

The Buildup Weave

If your story is very short, your structure will probably look like this:

  1. Central thread opens in the first paragraph. The girl goes into her room and barely escapes from the monster under her bed.
  2. Secondary thread opens (if there is one). The girl tries to tell her mother, but her mother doesn’t believe her because she’s lied so many times.
  3. Second thread closes, setting the scene for the climax. The girl admits to previous lies and apologizes. The mother realizes the girl has been lying because she hasn’t been paying enough attention to her and agrees to go into the bedroom with her to face the monster.
  4. Central thread closes as the story climaxes and ends. Their powers combined, girl and mother defeat the monster.

The Wind Down Weave

If you have a longer story, your structure is more likely to look like this:

  1. Central thread opens in the first scene. The girl goes into her room and barely escapes from the monster under her bed.
  2. Secondary thread opens. The girl tries to tell her mother, but her mother doesn’t believe her; she thinks it’s an excuse not to clean her room.
  3. Central thread closes as the story climaxes and ends. The girl heads back into the bedroom to face the monster under her bed. But every time she tries to whack at it, it jumps to another shadow in her room. To get rid of the shadows it hides in, the girl puts away all her toys and clothes. Finally, she banishes the monster.
  4. Second thread closes in epilogue. The mother comes into the bedroom to apologize to the girl for being so harsh. She sees the room is spotless and praises the girl. Then they go to the fair to celebrate.

Regardless of the weave you use, the central thread should open the story. This is important not only because it sets audience expectations about your story but also because it will provide a stronger hook than your more trivial threads. The closing of this same thread should also be your story’s climax. If you close other threads before your central thread, they should help build up to it. If you wait until afterward, then your story is effectively finished, and you’re writing epilogue. Epilogue is distinguished by having less conflict, and usually a happier tone, than the preceding events.

If you have more threads, you can keep layering the buildup and wind down formats, mixing them as suits your story. To do this, open each new thread in order of declining importance. After every thread is open, start closing them either as a build up to or wind down from your main storyline.

The Fractal Weave

Alternatively, you could use a format that looks like this:

  1. Central thread opens in the first scene. The girl goes into her room and barely escapes from a monster under her bed.
  2. Secondary thread opens. The girl tries to tell her mother but can’t find her anywhere in the house.
  3. Second thread closes, reminds readers of central thread. The girl finds her mother in the back yard, holding up a rake. The girl tells her mother about the monster, and the mother explains she had been chasing it around outside, but it escaped her grasp.
  4. Third thread opens. When the girl and her mother try to get back inside to face the monster, they find that none of the doors will open.
  5. Third thread closes, setting up for the climax. The girl manages to fit in through a small window. She runs and unlocks the back door for her mother, the monster hot on her heels.
  6. Central thread closes as the story climaxes and ends. Together, girl and mother defeat the monster.

This is a partially episodic, or fractal, plotline. If you took away the central thread, it would be completely separate stories. The closure between the threads gives the reader a convenient place to stop. To motivate them to continue, you can remind your audience about your open thread when you close a smaller thread.

This structure is an especially good choice for a book series, or other series works. Your readers will expect a conclusion when they reach the end of a book. This format allows you to satisfy that expectation while retaining their interest in the series.

The Chain Weave

This last format is a little more unusual. You can have one cohesive story without an open central thread if you link your threads tightly together.

  1. First thread opens in the first scene. The girl goes into her room and barely escapes from a monster under her bed.
  2. First thread closes but opens second thread. The girl tells her parents she’s afraid to sleep in her room because of the monster. They decide she needs more structure, and they send her away to a boarding school.
  3. Second thread closes but opens third thread. Everyone one at the boarding school makes the girl feel right at home, but that’s because they are a cult that believes she is their founder reincarnated. As the new figurehead, she has to lead a dark ritual with human sacrifice.
  4. Third thread closes but opens fourth thread. At the height of the ritual, the girl declares she isn’t their founder, and she won’t sacrifice anyone. As a result, the ritual fails. It turns out this ritual was the only thing holding back the dark elder gods, and they rise up to threaten the school.
  5. Fourth thread closes but opens… the first thread. The girl decides to let the elder gods destroy the school, instead going home to face the monster under her bed.
  6. First thread closes. The monster under the girl’s bed seems a lot less threatening now that she’s encountered elder gods. She tames it and makes it into her pet.

The trick here is that readers have no chance to rest, because each closure simultaneously creates another opening hook. You don’t have to loop back on the first thread for your ending, but I recommend it. Echoing the beginning will make your story feel more cohesive.

Common Problems

The Central Thread Is Unclear

My examples make plot hooks seem simple, but in practice they can be used with a lot of subtlety and nuance. Few writers outside of Disney will make their hero sing a song to get the central thread across. Sometimes, the protagonist doesn’t even know what’s missing. They might be unaware of how lonely or insecure they are. That’s why you can end up with a story that feels like this one:

Example

Every day Naya wore orange to school because none of the other kids wore orange. She ate her lunch with the teachers because no one else wanted to and sat backwards when she rode the bus home. Then one day after school, Naya heard growling under her bed. There was a monster with sharp teeth and claws under there. She put a collar on it and brought it to school the next day. All the other kids ran away in fear. Naya rejoiced.

In this example we can see that Naya is exhibiting some odd behavior, but it doesn’t demonstrate a problem. As far as we know, she’s happily engaging in contrary actions. There’s nothing that’s clearly unresolved for the monster to resolve. Now I’m going make the issue clearer:

Example

Naya frowned at her very plain clothes every morning. At lunch, Naya grumbled while she ate the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After school, Naya put her books in a backpack that looked like every other backpack and rode home on a bus that was just another bus. Then one day after school, Naya heard growling under her bed. There was a monster with sharp teeth and claws under there. She put a collar on it and brought it to school the next day. All the other kids ran away in fear. Not one of them had a monster under their bed. Naya rejoiced.

Naya frowns in the first sentence; that gives readers immediate notice of a problem in need of a solution. This example is also further into her head. Before, we were viewing her mostly from the outside. In the second example, we see everything from Naya’s perspective, and that tells us how unsatisfied she is with her ordinary life.

I could also highlight the opening hook by having Naya enviously compare herself to other children. For instance, “Julia wore tied-dyed skirts to school, but Naya’s skirts were just plain skirts.” This will also make the closing, where Naya concludes she has something no else has, stronger.

A Thread Never Closes

Few mistakes inspire more complaints than when writers abandon story elements they introduced. Sometimes writers just forget about what they started, and other times they don’t realize they opened a thread that the audience would expect them to close. Let’s look at an example.

Example

Naya was sent to her room and locked in by her mother, but once there, she discovered there was a monster under her bed. It growled at her, reaching its claws toward her feet. But Naya stayed calm; she could deal with this. In fact, she would move the monster to her mother’s bedroom and see how she liked it. Naya took out a hairpin and worked the lock on her bedroom door, as she’d done many times before. She just needed to sneak out and grab the cat carrier and a broom. She tiptoed around the house for ten minutes before she realized that neither her parents nor her sister were home. Having her run of the place, she decked herself out with rope, a flashlight, dog collar and leash, duck tape, and some hot dogs to lure the monster into the cat carrier. She would be the best monster wrangler ever. When she finally got back into the room half an hour later, the monster was gone. Little dirty footprints lead out the window she’d left open.

This sample has a central thread that closes: the problem that the monster poses, and Naya’s goal to release it into her mother’s room. But it also opens several threads that never close:

  1. The consequences of disobeying her mother. When characters disobey rules set by a source that’s more powerful than them – whether it’s a parent, a master, the state, or society – the audience needs to know what consequences they will face. In this case, Naya was sent to her room and decided to break out. Will she get in trouble for it? We never find out.
  2. Why her family isn’t in the house. If you present something out of the ordinary to serve your plot, your audience will expect you to explain it by the end of your epilogue. In this case, the family’s disappearance is puzzling because Naya’s mother just sent her to her room a few minutes before, and they left her alone in the house while she was locked in her bedroom.
  3. Whether Naya will overcome her emotional issues. From the sample, we can gather that Naya has problems. There had to be a reason she was sent to her room in the first place, and she’s decided to vindictively move the monster she found to her mother’s room. When a protagonist exhibits troubled behavior, the audience expects them to learn from their mistake by the end of the story. If the protagonist is unhappy, the audience expects them to find the silver lining and feel better. This never happens to Naya.

It’s appropriate to leave threads open in two circumstances. The first is if you are using the fractal plotting pattern and this is one work in a series. In that case, your story isn’t finished until your series is finished, and so you have until then to close all your threads. If this sample was only the first chapter in a book, it would be fine.

Second, sometimes storytellers leave a thread open to end on a suspenseful note. This is common for horror stories. However, these open threads are established either during or after the central thread closes. For instance, everyone is safe from the monster, story done. But wait – in the epilogue we see its baby has latched onto the car the survivors escaped in. In my above example where Naya is tired of her boring life, we might wonder if she’ll get in trouble for scaring the other kids, but this thread opens just as her dissatisfaction is solved. Your audience won’t expect your threads to close at the end if your end has already arrived.

There’s a Closing for a Thread That Wasn’t Opened

Concluding a subplot that hasn’t been established is akin to solving a problem that doesn’t exist. You’ve just wasted time and left your readers scratching their heads as to where your concluding scene came from.

Example

Naya tried to sleep but kept hearing strange scratching noises under her bed. Every time she turned her lamp on, the noises stopped. Finally she just hung her head over the side of her bed. Underneath, green eyes reflected the moonlight. Naya called for her mother, who came running with a broom. After one prod from the broom, the monster scampered to another hiding place, but Naya’s mother couldn’t see it. Naya pointed to where it hid under her dresser, then under her desk, then under the bed again. Finally, Naya got her own broom, and together they forced the monster toward the light of the window. Revealed, it screeched and evaporated into a cloud of smoke. Naya’s mother gave her a big hug, assuring her that she was safe now. Feeling happy and safe, Naya promised never to blame her mother for not protecting her. Besides, she knew she could protect herself now. Then she went to bed and drifted off to sleep.

The conclusion in this sample doesn’t strike home, because the threads were never opened:

  • The monster isn’t established as a threat. The central thread is Naya’s efforts to sleep, the monster is merely making noise. There is no indication that it could endanger Naya. Therefore banishing it offers no relief – readers will probably feel sorry for it. The discussion about safety and protection at the end also means nothing.
  • There is no indication that Naya has an issue with her mother. Naya and her mother reconcile at the end – except there’s no issue to reconcile. There might have been a previous incident in which the mother let Naya get hurt, but we don’t hear about it. This end doesn’t mean anything to us.
  • Naya doesn’t show signs of feeling helpless. Naya declares she knows she could protect herself, but there is no sign she had a problem with this before. Sure, she calls her mother into the room, but that’s normal child behavior. To open a thread for personal growth, readers would have to see obvious signs of a problem. Then the audience would look forward to watching her resolve that issue.

With practice, you can become consciously aware of the threads you are using in your story. That will allow you to make your opening hooks stronger, your closing notes more satisfying, and avoid losing track of your work. But that’s not the end to managing reader expectations. Next time, I’ll discuss managing the tone of your story.

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