This is one of those questions that writers – particularly beginners – always ask, but the answer can depend on the type of story you are writing and the amount of characters you have.
Firstly, writers should understand what we mean by ‘storyline’. A storyline is another word for plot, which is at the heart of your story. The plot is the main storyline; it’s what your novel is all about. A novel will have one main plot and several smaller storylines to accompany it.
Think of these little storylines as story threads.
Having more than one storyline is not uncommon – in fact, your main characters will have their own storylines within the overall plot. If they didn’t have their own stories, the novel wouldn’t be as fully fleshed out as it should. Important characters will always have their own story to tell and certain parts of the novel should reflect this.
For instance, one character might have a particular background story that relates to the main story, or perhaps one of the other main characters has a story that intertwines with the protagonist’s story in such a way that it requires further attention in order to develop the story arc.
You can have as many storylines – or threads – as required, since there are no rules on this, however it’s wise to keep things simple and uncomplicated, especially if you are writing your first novel. That means you don’t have to write a storyline for absolutely every character. Writers tend to concentrate on just one or two key characters, otherwise too many character threads and subplots will just make things messy, because for every subplot you create, you must satisfactorily resolve it by the end of the novel. And if you have too many, it could cause problems.
In fact, the amount of storyline that you write for the each character will depend on how important each thread is to the main plot, so for instance, if one of your main character’s storyline is closely entwined with the main story arc, or closely related to the protagonist, then you should develop it accordingly.
If, however, the storyline is secondary or not as essential to the plot, then it should warrant only a small amount of attention by comparison.
Your primary storyline will always be about your protagonist. It’s their story, their journey, and finding the answer to the main character’s goal is the driving force of the story. The rest of the characters just happen to share lots of experiences with main character along the way.
Subplots are another word for storylines. These refer to the mini-stories that are related to and run parallel to the main plot. Hence the name sub-plot. (‘Sub’ in Latin means something that is beneath, below or behind – so a subplot is a storyline that is below or considered behind the main plot).
If, for instance, you have a hero who falls in love with the girl, then there will be a sub-plot to support this. In addition, there might also be the girl’s own storyline. Both these will run parallel to the main story. Or you might have the hero and another character working together, away from the other characters and the story, which again, could form a sub plot. And that other character could also have his or her own storyline, too.
It may sound complicated, but in truth it isn’t. If you think of each main character having their own little storyline, then in addition to that you might have a sub-plot involving one or more of the characters that revolves around the main story, then the process will become clear.
In truth, a novel can have many storylines. Obviously, the downside is that if it has too many then the novel will become overcomplicated, hard to follow and a chore to read. They should never overshadow the main story plot and never become too many that they swamp the main story entirely.
In fact, writers don’t have to have that many storylines in order to write a good book. The idea is to keep it fairly simple and easy for the reader to comprehend – this makes for a much better novel to read, and a much easier one to write.
Next week: How to build on your strengths as a writer