Ambit Creative
Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer for global Web content and print publications. She worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing, and is a fiction and nonfiction book editor, specializing in nonfiction and memoir. As a press correspondent and columnist, Adele writes for newspapers, magazines, blogs and literary journals. Her stories have appeared in The Circle, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Miranda Literary Magazine,,The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Trillium, the Italian-American literary journal Pyramid and an anthology for Fairfield University. She won Poetic Voices of America's editor's choice award, and presents the innovative Art of Editing in Writing workshop for continuing education venues and area libraries. She is a nominated member of Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. Besides that and occasionally breathing, she's working on a new novel. Visit her website at: Adele Annesi.

A Tale of Two Stories: A Study in Plot Treatment

I recently read Life of Pi, a fantasy adventure by Yann Martel, and found it interesting on many levels, one of which is the two-story concept—if you don’t like how one life story goes, create another. We may not be able to do this in real life, but we can do it in storytelling. Some of the most interesting tales have more than one plot and don’t end the way we thought, sometimes not even the way we hope.

Although most stories have only one major plot line, most have more happening in lesser stories, or subplots. It’s best to plan subplots by including them in your initial outline, but be aware that they’ll change organically as you write. It’s important to allow this to happen, and that’s where editing comes in.

Subplots shouldn’t dominate a story but rather illuminate and support it. One way to tell when they have begun to rule instead of support is when secondary characters overshadow main characters, and when the events that relate to them take on greater significance than what’s happening with your main squeeze.

To fix a subplot run amok, ask these two questions: What is my story about? What is it really about? This two-pronged query adds depth and helps writers categorize facts into less important and essential. Knowing what your story is really about enables you to move its minor aspects out of the limelight and into the shadows so that the real story shines. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly grasp the real story, or theme, about one-third of the way through the first draft. That’s when characters begin to jell and the story gains substance.

As to tales with more than one interpretation, Life of Pi is a straightforward example. You’re not in doubt about a second option because the narrator tells you. Actually, he tells the two people questioning him, but it amounts to the same. The technique works well for Pi because the “surprise” of a possible alternative gives depth to the piece, albeit at the end. (The reader suspects something else must be going on, but it isn’t clear until the final pages.) Now there’s more to consider besides Pi’s abysmal voyage with a tiger in his lifeboat. It’s hard to imagine worse than that, but the author manages to provide a more devastating possibility that makes having a tiger onboard seem comparatively benign.

The second ending also gives the reader pause because Martel

offers the main story in the form of fantasy, an escape, and the alternative in the form of reality, which is inescapable. He leaves it to his two interrogators, and his readers, to choose which they prefer. But even if you choose the fantasy, you know instinctively that the more dreadful option is the real one. The harder you try to deny it, the more it sticks with you—not a bad way to make a lasting impact.

Achieving this effect takes planning, so it still helps to consider an alternative ending during the plot treatment. But you may not always be able to plan that far ahead. Sometimes the alternative presents itself after you’ve begun writing. If this happens, take time to consider the other option, but before revamping your work, create an outline showing how the second scenario would unfold. If your story doesn’t lend itself to presenting the second option directly to the reader, consider doing what mystery writers often do, give a false climax just a page or two before the real one.

Whether you plan for a variegated story from the start or back into it later, make sure to tie up the loose ends. The best way to find them is to reread the piece after you’ve let it rest. Note any inconsistencies so that you can smooth them out in the next draft. If in doubt, do a timeline for the main plot and each subplot to see where they intersect. Take a look at what happens to your main story in those instances; it should be enhanced not upstaged by what’s happening “behind the scenes.” As to subplots and how you treat your “real” story, be gentle. Too heavy an editing hand to make these techniques more obvious comes off preachy and destroys the gossamer fabric of the piece, especially if you’re writing fiction with a literary bent.

One thing about duality—whether in multiple storylines or multiple endings—it’s a powerful creative tool. Charles Dickens changed his original ending for Great Expectations to make the story more satisfying. In Life of Pi, the author used a second story option to highlight a truth about fear made earlier in the book. “Real fear . . . seeks to rot everything . . . so you must fight hard to express it . . . to shine the light of words upon it . . . if you don’t . . . you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.” Let’s not be afraid to create or to make changes along the way, but let’s use these techniques to shine the light of well-chosen words on every page.