What The Promise of Jesse Woods Teaches Writers about Balancing Multiple Plot Lines

May 28, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of our series exploring the merits of The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry. You can read the introductory post here and the second installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain spoilers.


Cliffhangers are intrinsic to sensational writing, hurtling readers into the next chapter. Whether a hero dives into a colossal waterfall to save his lady love, or a sidekick literally dangles from a precipice, these scenes all follow the same strategy: raise the tension to a feverish pitch, then switch story lines.


In the worst cases, this is a cheap tactic that temporarily motivates readers but risks alerting them that the author is being manipulative. Without a fascinating plot and compelling characters, readers’ emotional investment will quickly fade.


Other authors subtly vary pacing, chopping up bland plots so readers don’t have to swallow them whole. But a boring plot won’t get livelier when delivered in pieces. You can’t bank on readers’ interest unless you continuously make deposits with riveting scenes.


More rarely but optimally, multiple plots build upon one another, giving readers enough answers to be satisfied—yet not without arousing even more questions. The Promise of Jesse Woods is one such story. Through two alternating plot lines, Chris Fabry weaves his protagonist’s past and present into a tight, beautiful pattern. If we study his plot and pacing, we can glean techniques to sew our own stories together just as effectively.


How to Hold Readers’ Interest with More than One Plot

Crafting multiple story lines that are equally engaging can be a challenge. Despite an author’s best efforts, readers often gravitate to one over the others because of personal preference. If the story lines never effect each other, readers will be tempted to play hopscotch, skipping events just to get to the “good parts.” When readers have this reaction, it signals two possible problems: either they aren’t convinced that each story line is essential, or the story lines lack a connection.


When readers first encounter split plots, they assume that each one matters. Unless that belief is validated, they’ll stop caring about certain characters and events. Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris, suffers from this weakness. He jumps between three POVs but fails to unify the protagonists’ experiences, which encourages readers to bypass chapters to stay close to their favorite characters. Each plot line must present new information that affects the entire story—if not immediately, then soon.


In The Promise of Jesse Woods, Fabry baits his hook by beginning with a slew of narrative questions: What destroyed Matt and Jesse’s childhood romance? Why is he horrified about who she’s marrying? Why did his father withhold news of the wedding? And why is Jesse important enough to pull Matt away from his life in Chicago after a single phone call?


Gradually, we’re reeled toward the answers as Matt returns to his hometown and reminisces about the summer he met Jesse. His childhood and adulthood are inseparably intertwined, and each is the key to understanding the other. Fabry’s approach to dual plot lines, although somewhat unique to his story, is powerful and worth closer examination.


1. He Unpacks the Same Story from Two POVs

Unlike most stories with more than one viewpoint character, in The Promise of Jesse Woods, both narrative voices belong to Matt. Although the coming-of-age Matt and the grown-up Matt recount different events, his current struggle reflects his history in Dogwood. The eventual contrast in his attitude highlights the changes he undergoes.


We can imitate this technique to provide a strong and clear relation between story lines. When each one tackles the same incident from two distinct perspectives, the relevance becomes unmistakable, and readers won’t zone out.


2. He Uses the Second Story Line to Alter Readers’ Perceptions of the First

The first few chapters from 1972 introduce Matt’s tenuous but relatively amicable relationship with his parents. When the story shifts to 1984, not much has changed in Matt’s behavior toward his mother, but we immediately sense antagonism between Matt and his father. Something occurred between 1972 and 1984 that created a deep, unspoken rift significant enough to explain why Matt’s father was tight-lipped about Jesse’s upcoming wedding. We drive back to the past with Matt to seek an answer for why their relationship deteriorated.


Fabry’s technique here is versatile and could be applied, for example, to a story about a protagonist trying to unravel the secrets of a magic system. The saints of his people practiced magic to help others and protect their homeland. However, a second protagonist discovers that the magic taps into the Dark Lord’s power, which casts a shadow over the situation. Is the magic good or evil? When one story line contradicts another, readers accept both as legitimate, knowing that conflict leads to future resolution.


3. He Asks and Answers the Same Questions with Both Story Lines

Although separated by time, the past and present eventually show why Jesse is marrying Earl, not Matt. Without both story lines to color the outcome, the theme would pale.


Imagine two protagonists who live on opposite sides of a planet with a wide gap in centuries. Both are grappling with the aftermath of an eerily similar encounter with a divine being. Although distant from each other, the two story lines are linked by the question, Who is this divine being?


Even if story lines are disconnected by time, place, and character, any parallels between them will prove to readers that both are crucial.


How to Maintain Steady Pacing

Coherent pacing can be tricky to achieve in a story with multiple plot lines. Although varying the tension from scene to scene gives readers a chance to process what’s happened, erratic fluctuation will feel like patchwork. The flow of each story line needs to correspond with the other and build until the climax.


On a broad scale, two decisions need to be made:


  1. Which plot points will each story line hit? If one contains all the pivotal moments, readers will conclude that everything else is a red herring. And they’d be correct. Every story line must be integral. Otherwise, the pacing of the main plot will be disrupted, and readers will feel misled.
  2. How will each story line contribute to the climax? In the final moments of The Fellowship of the Ring, the characters break into groups, resulting in four story lines. By the end of the trilogy, the number shrinks to two, but both target the same goal, and neither could succeed without the other.

By the midpoint of The Promise of Jesse Woods, Fabry has established the core themes and conditioned us to love (or hate) the cast of characters. Just as we settle into this comfortable spot, he ramps up both timelines with a pair of emotional plot twists.


The one in 1984 strikes first. As Earl describes his personal transformation, Matt’s preconceptions about him falter. Then Earl drops a bomb: Jesse is pregnant with his child. Abruptly, Fabry transports us to a calm summer evening in 1972, when Matt and his friend Dickie are camping in the backyard. But Dickie soon falls asleep—and Jesse sneaks up to join Matt by the campfire. Lulled by the night, they talk openly, and Matt’s feelings for Jesse become more and more apparent. Jesse reports that her mother has died, leaving three-year-old Daisy in her care. In exchange for helping her keep her mother’s death a secret, Matt makes her promise she’ll marry him one day. In only a few paragraphs, the tension rises to match—and possibly surpass—Matt’s conversation with Earl in 1984.


Putting these irreconcilable revelations side by side throws the story into overdrive. Fabry doesn’t cheat readers with cliffhangers, which at best manufacture an obligatory page-turn. Instead, he relies on the burning curiosity he’s expertly fanned into flame by setting the two timelines against each other. We can extract three techniques from how these two scenes play out:


1. The Timelines Reach a Major Plot Point in Tandem

Not only are the answers to our questions interspersed between both timelines, but the tension and pacing mirror each other overall. This curbs whiplash as we move between the past and present, allowing us to focus on the big picture of Matt’s life that’s emerging.


While I can’t claim that this strategy is a black-and-white rule of multiple story lines, it’s nevertheless an excellent way to tie or untie threads that can be difficult to handle.


2. The Two Plot Twists Directly Contradict One Another

In accepting Earl’s proposal, Jesse has broken her promise to Matt. While pregnancy seems to be her excuse, we doubt that’s the real reason she abandoned her one moral code. This pushes us beyond the questions that hooked us to one that overarches Matt and Jesse’s lives.


Provoking questions in readers seems to be Fabry’s strong suit, and he harnesses the situation to bring us to the shocking confession at the climax. Only then do we learn the missing piece that makes Matt’s whole life—and Jesse’s promise—click into place.


At the heart of pacing is readers’ understanding of how the plot fits together. The more they understand, the less urgency they’ll feel. Uncertainty fractures their interpretation of the plot and urges them to unravel the conclusion.


3. Fabry Contrasts High and Low Tension Between Scenes to Magnify the Drama of Disorienting Plot Twists

The revelation that Jesse is pregnant jars Matt to his core, and it startles us too. As the story reroutes to a more peaceful scene, we have space to wrestle with this new fact. But, like a rollercoaster, the tension accelerates until it’s racing as fast as the first timeline, and we plummet into a second revelation that leaves us gasping for air—and grasping for an explanation.


Like Fabry, we need to discern when to shake readers up and when to be gentle. With multiple story lines, transitions are a requisite, affording us numerous opportunities to either match or contrast tension from scene to scene, story line to story line. At the climax, the tension should be at maximum level from all directions, allowing the story lines to converge into an unforgettable explosion.


If Fabry had written The Promise of Jesse Woods chronologically, the story would have had two separate climaxes, which would have diluted the impact. Readers needed to walk alongside Matt as he discovers and accepts what the answers to his questions mean for himself, Jesse, and their future.


Understanding Our Own Stories

The Promise of Jesse Woods is rife with mystery. Why is Jesse marrying Earl? That question propels readers forward until they run smack into the answer. Fabry knew the best format for Matt and Jesse’s story was a divided timeline that enables the final reveal and resolution to happen as a chain reaction.


As writers, we must ask ourselves what kind of stories we’re aiming for. What questions do we want to tug readers along with? Do these questions need to be teased out across multiple plot lines or explored with a single one? If we compare the pros and cons of each approach and ask beta readers for input, that can help us determine what will best serve our works-in-progress.


Famous sci-fi author and writing teacher, Orson Scott Card, once said, “There are a thousand right ways to tell a story, and ten million wrong ones, and you’re a lot more likely to find one of the latter than the former your first time through the tale.” Everyone has specific techniques and tools that they excel at, and our responsibility is to figure out which ones best convey and enhance a particular story.


Fabry nailed this in The Promise of Jesse Woods, and with practice, so can we.


Tune in to our podcast this Saturday as Brianna Storm Hilvety and Josiah DeGraaf interview Chris Fabry about the behind-the-scenes process of writing The Promise of Jesse Woods. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What techniques do you use to balance multiple plot lines in your stories?


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