Multiple Story Forms in a Novel

I’ve come up with three storyforms, with three MCs, with the four perspectives developed for each one.

The MCs are OS or IC or RS in each other’s storyforms, so the idea is for all of it to be fairly tightly wound. It takes place in a year’s time with two roommates and their two girlfriends, during a year the changes their lives, and the experience of America, the city, race. Oh yeah, it’s epic.

So the question is–what do I leave out? This is a lot of story points and I don’t want a particularly long book. But I wrestled with this thing for the last two years, and it didn’t work when I tried to use a single story form, and it totally works if I make them separate. It’s an embarassment of riches.

I am also paying attention to my own notes above about substories. Two of the storyforms are definitely substories, which means they have to take a turn back into the main story at some point. I’ve still got a couple of months of treatment-making before I settle this down, so lots of time to get it right.

Love to hear from people with experience doing this. I need all the help I can get. This is my first multistory form writing effort.

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Hi @GetSchwifty, I do have some experience with multiple storyforms in a single (long) novel. My experience is a little different though because I only discovered the substories after they were already present (they just appeared on their own!). Given that, you might take what I say with a grain of salt – I struggled with this post because my process is different. Hopefully it can be of some help.

Mine was also three storyforms – the main story and two substories. I noticed the first substory about halfway through writing the first draft, when a hug happened that felt super-important and I was like “whoa! that’s an RS” and then I could see the MC, IC and OS perspectives for the substory too. The other substory was almost concluded when I noticed it, about 3/4 through the draft (its conclusion is part of the main story’s 4th driver act turn).

###General Thoughts
My general advice would be a “hands off” approach where you don’t try to force anything in the substories, just let them emerge. When I noticed them I didn’t try to find the storyform or anything; I figured if they were emerging on their own it might cause more harm than good to over-analyse. Jim confirmed this approach when I asked him during a Writer’s Room (I think one of the early ones, August of 2018 maybe).

That said, you can definitely take what you know – especially the throughline Domains and Concerns – and keep those perspectives in your head as you write / outline. This is at the level of understanding your story better in your head.

I would avoid trying to illustrate all your story points or plot out every PSR beat of every substory. I think this would be too complicated and mess you up. Plus, it might make your novel longer than you want it to be. So instead of asking “what do I leave out?” you are sort of just focusing on your main story and bringing in stuff from the substories whenever it feels right to do so. That is, you bring in substories whenever you want, you just don’t need to feel compelled to do so.

Since you already have storyforms for the substories, you might want to keep notes on ideas for illustrations, stuff that pops into your head or that you notice, without forcing yourself to illustrate every last thing.

###Making the substories matter
I think the most crucial thing you can do with substories is to tie them really strongly to the main story in some way. I think you’re aware of this already… In your other thread about sub-plots vs. sub-stories, your diagram had “substory brings needed element into main story OS”, and this can be SUPER satisfying storytelling.

For example, say you have an OS Solution element of Hinder, and your illustration involves putting something in someone’s way. And it’s super cool, but kind of far-fetched that it would work – like, why doesn’t the badguy just go around? But your substory brings in the Accurate element (via its OS Solution), which fulfils a main story OS Requirement, and that takes care of the far-fetched-ness. So now the audience gets a feeling like “wow that plan seemed so impossible, but the way [substory protagonist] paid so dearly to get such an [Accurate] [Requirement] for [Hindering] really made it work!”

There can be other connections too, of course beyond main story Requirement. Prerequisites or Preconditions would work similarly. And I’m sure you can connect to any main story throughline, not just OS. This would have a very different feel.

One caveat here is that these connections happened with both of my substories, without any conscious attempt to put them there. So if nothing obvious presents itself, you may want to just write and see what emerges on its own – or what you can nudge into place once you’re further into your draft.

###Bring out the big guns when you need them!

My advice here is kind of an about-face from all the “let it emerge on its own” stuff I’ve been saying above. The idea is basically that, do use Dramatica when you need it – when you have a strong instinct that a substory illustration will help you, use it!

This leads me to my best experience ever using Dramatica. I was well into writing the denouement, like page 996 of 1000, and I got to this part that really felt like the substory RS Solution. But I was having trouble getting this one bit of dialogue right. I got a strong feeling that knowing the substory storyform would help, but I had purposely stayed away from storyforming (in order to let substory emerge on its own).

However, several scenes earlier I had noticed that the substory MC really seemed to change from Non-Accurate to Accurate. So I plugged that and a few other things in that I was pretty sure of, and the only options for RS Solution were Trust and Effect.

Trust could have worked, logically, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Meanwhile, Effect gave me a tingle up my spine even though a lot of the gists weren’t right. Finally I got to some that felt in the ballpark like “focusing on the end product” and “aftereffects”, and then BOOM, “having an effect on someone”. That was it, these two girls who were like nails on a chalkboard together, and had no reason to be together except that one of them had decided out of the blue (instigated) that they should be sisters, eventually mattered to each other like family does.

And the proof was, that sentiment made the dialogue and the scene totally work. It’s still one of my favourite parts of the draft:

Spoiler if you're an alpha/beta reader; otherwise click to read

Tell the little weirdo she would’ve made a great sister. I know I wasn’t always very nice to her… But being family isn’t always about being nice. It’s about how much you matter to each other. So just … tell her she mattered to me, okay? And not just because she saved the world, although she did that too.


Wow! Will read carefully and respond. Thank you!

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Just gave your note a careful read.

I get what you’re saying about letting the substories emerge, and it makes sense, but it so happens that I can’t work that way on this story because I already know what the substories are. I’m not having to go look for them–they’re right there.

Agreed about PSR. I’ve backed away from using that very much. Truth is, I just don’t care about it. I’m sure it works great in the theory but I’d rather stay a level above it during the creative process. Jim’s SUBTEXT app has worked so spectacularly well for me, in combination with the storyforms generated by DRAMATICA, I’m a lot less inclined to try to magyck the thing through PSR. I’m thinking of it these days as a second level to drop to IF you’re having trouble finding the illustration. And always remembering Melanie’s ‘no one ever won an award for perfect structure’ has helped me let go of some of that too.

Agree with tying the substories to the main story–and wow, yeah, the emotional satisfaction on that is huge. It’s a precise emotion–suddenly everything makes SENSE–with a kind of corresponding release of tension.

(May I recommend WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT? I’ve been Audibling it.)

I felt an emotional tingle reading your lines of dialogue. That’s a sure sign you got it right. Perfectly done.


Thanks @GetSchwifty – very glad if any of it helped. And thanks very much re: the dialogue.

I tend to treat the PSR in a similar fashion. But there is a neat way I tend to use it. When you’re writing the first draft and you’re in a particular signpost, you just look at the whole quad of the PSR for inspiration. So rather than saying “this scene is Value” it’s more like, “yeah, I really see how Value/Confidence/Worry/Worth fits this part of the story.” Any of those things, or even just the feeling of the entire quad in general, can give you some good ideas or point you in the right direction.