Friday, March 1, 2013

Tying It All Together with LJ Sellers

To kick off March, I'm happy to welcome thriller writer, LJ Sellers, a much-missed former member of the Blood-Red Pencil. She has a new book out in her popular thriller series - the best one yet! ~ Dani G.

Complex plots keep readers guessing and turning the pages to see how it all fits. As much as readers like to be surprised, they don't want to be confused, and it's often a fine line between the two.

As a crime fiction novelist, I've often used parallel plot structures to tell a complex story from multiple points of view, and sometimes even from different time periods. But readers rarely—if ever—complain about being confused by my stories. Maybe I've just been lucky so far, but I also stick to a few simple rules to keep everything straightforward and satisfying.

Time and dateline: I label my chapter openings with the date and time. If a chapter/subplot jumps back to a different time period, I label it like this: Six months earlier. By doing that, I catch readers' attention and present the information in a clear manner.

My stories also take place in a short time span, usually less than a week, so two characters (detectives) often experience different things in the same time frame. This means that chapters with a new character perspective (POV) have to start hours earlier than the previous chapter ended. Readers prefer starting each character's day from the beginning rather than jumping back and forth between characters in real time, which can be confusing and doesn’t allow for much character development. The exception to this is the climax, which should show events as they occur in real time.

Show the overlap. When parallel stories seem to have completely different crimes and/or characters, the driving question for readers is: How are these events connected? But if the two subplots never intersect and just suddenly mash together at the end, readers will be skeptical and maybe even feel cheated. So to keep it realistic and smooth, I show an occasional connection throughout the novel—a person who has links to both crimes or more importantly, a parallel theme.

In the first Jackson story, The Sex Club, the connection between the parallel plots was obvious because of the overlapping characters, but still a mystery. In my latest Jackson story, Rules of Crime, the connections are subtle—a shared venue/background and characters with similar motivations, representing a unifying theme. Some readers may miss those clues. But once the conclusion is revealed, they'll be able to look back and see that I wove them together from the beginning.

Continuity and clues. Red herrings—the stepping stones of mysteries—have to mean something. Even if they don't lead directly to the killer, they should be significant in some way. If you bring them up, then drop them without explanation or tie-in, readers will feel cheated. In my first Jackson story, The Sex Club, I mentioned a pair of goldenrod panties found in a suspect's bathrobe. They never came up again, and the first book club that invited me to discuss the story wanted to know: Who did they belong to?

Parallel themes can also be powerful in engaging readers. I've employed overarching themes in all my stories, but in Rules of Crime, the focus is on troubled women who've lost one of their parents and are willing to risk everything to feel secure.

Keep it real. Sometimes coincidence can be the catalyst for the whole story, but I don't rely on it for my resolutions. The parallel plots must be naturally intertwined through characters and/or motivations. Contrivance or coincidence will leave readers shaking their heads.

Also, in real life, few criminals confess everything to the police in a tidy wrap-up the way they do on TV. This can be problematic if the subplot connections are events that happened in the past or events the reader has no way of being privy to. In these situations, I sometimes use the culprit's POV to show their motivation or past actions, so that readers know the whole story even if the police don’t. It's more realistic than having the killer make a full confession with all the details. And sometimes, my antagonist will share just enough information in a final interrogation to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. In both cases, it's realistic and leaves readers satisfied.

These examples refer to crime fiction, but I think they can be applied to complex parallel stories in almost any genre. What do you think? Readers: Do you enjoy complex or parallel plots? Writers: How do you make it work?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, bestselling novelist, cyclist, and thrill-seeking fanatic. Her novels featuring Detective Jackson include The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death, Passions of the Dead, Dying for Justice, Liars, Cheaters, & Thieves, and Rules of Crime. She’s also penned three standalone thrillers: The Baby Thief, The Gauntlet Assassin, and The Lethal Effect. When not plotting murder, she’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.Visit her at Facebook, Twitter, and on her blog.


  1. LJ, I've been a huge fan of your novels for a long time, both the Jackson series and your stand-alone thrillers, and was thrilled that you asked me to edit three of them.

    As a freelance fiction editor, I read all novels critically, including bestsellers, and I'm always taking note of the novelist's techniques for grabbing and building reader interest by creating charismatic characters, adding tension, suspense and intrigue, juggling subplots,etc.

    As I was reading your latest, Rules of Crime, besides being totally immersed in the intriguing main story problem, I found myself admiring the way you successfully jump from one plot to another and from one viewpoint character to another within the main plot, and do it all so seamlessly, without confusing readers or boring them with repetition.

    Kudos, LJ! And congratulations on being #32 on Amazon's list of most popular authors! That's fantastic!

  2. Great advice, LJ! Although you're writing Crime Fiction, much of this is applicable to ANY fiction.

    Right off the bat you hit on the gist: "As much as readers like to be surprised, they don't want to be confused, and it's often a fine line between the two."
    I see this problem all the time--either telegraphed events or something coming out of the ozone with nothing to support it.

    Thanks for this post, and BIG congrats to you!

  3. L.J., Thanks for the tips and confirmation on the wisdom of/okayness of usage of including time and dateline tags. I recently got comments from a beta reader (an author/editor) who objected to those opening tags (on the first two short sections of the story), saying that readers often miss those. hmmm
    And good point to remember on red herrings—no matter the genre.

    As for how to make it work, in the current story I am working on (horror lite), we utilized overlap, in part: one set of characters becomes aware of, and decides to find, the other set, by monitoring a c.b. radio.

    And the bits and pieces of information that each group has picked up along the way, come together in a whole, albeit bizarre, picture, once the two groups get together.

  4. I'd like to hear more about your process and I'll definitely check out your books. Curse BRP for adding to my precariously tilting TBR list. : )

  5. I'm known for intricate plots and non-linear story-telling, so I very much appreciate the techniques you present, LJ. I know they work, but am not a big fan of datelines in cinematic scene changes or to open chapters in print. I did use them, though, for the story-within-a-story in Chipset to help the reader navigate the abrupt switch from current time back to WWII Europe.

    When possible, I prefer signaling POV and setting time and place within the narrative itself. ("Like Susan's day, Bill's had begun with coffee and a pastry, but he took his while shivering in his car on stakeout outside The Pink Panter.")

    As to linking parallel and included stories, I think there may be a place for "coincidence" if fate and the synchrony of events are thematic to the story, as in Bashert and in Chipset. The trick is striking a balance so that it all seems connected but not too neatly tied up.

  6. I'm sorry about the spam, kids. Have taken care of the culprits. Jodie, thanks for the heads up on LJ's Amazon ranking. Larry, hopefully you aren't trying to hijack this thread with your repeated links to your site. LOL. Hello!

  7. When I wrote my first book, I had to tackle the time thing, because my heroine was missing, and the detective had to find her. I ended up writing the entire chronology from each character's POV, then cutting and pasting them back together. I also had to make sure I wasn't revealing too much when I was in the "other" character's POV -- I still prefer mystery to suspense, although since both hero and heroine were POV characters, the reader did learn things that neither character knew at the time.

    As for headers to identify time/place. They never work for me. I either gloss over them when reading, or I've already forgotten what the last header was. I much prefer it when there are references in the text itself. (However, when I'm writing, I do keep those notes for myself.)

    (See you at LCC, LJ?)

    Terry's Place

  8. Because I love complex plots and multiple POVs, I found this post most informative. In fact, it called my attention to an oversight in my current book — in time for me to fix it before the bookstore version goes to press.

    Smooth transitions between POV characters, time, setting, etc., can be tricky. Doing it effectively without writer intrusion becomes an art; my preference as a writer is always to remain invisible to my readers.

    As for coincidence, it needs some groundwork laid, even if it's very subtle. I remember one of my earliest editing jobs where an abrupt (I thought) revelation allowed for the resolution of a huge problem. I questioned the writer, and she pointed out the (then) obvious clue that I had overlooked. It was right there in plain sight.

    Excellent post, L.J.

  9. I often gloss over, too, Terry. I have an even harder time with this technique when reading e-books. It's just harder to check previous chapters when there is confusion in the writing. I just finished a book that jumped back and forth between 25 years and various characters, and fortunately it was a paper book, because I had to head-hop, time-hop, and chapter-hop to keep the plot straight. Hard work for the reader.

  10. Re: Headers at the beginning of the chapter to identify time and place
    - I tend to skip over them, too, but am often glad they're there so I can quickly skip back and check, especially when I'm on a later chapter. So my advice is to use the the header but also insert some kind of time/place reference within the chapter, preferably within the first paragraph or two.

  11. I'm with Jodie. Even though I use time/date stamps, I also usually include the information in the text.

    Thanks, everyone, for such thoughtful and supportive comments.

  12. LJ, your books sound like the kind my husband and I like to read! I'm going to have to put them on my TBR list! Congratulations on your publishing success!

  13. Great to have you back, LJ! An excellent post, jam-packed with useful info. It deserves a wide audience! But before I head off to tweet—I agree that writers are wise to simplify things when using a complex plot structure. Starting a chapter with a character waking up may seem cliché in another type of story, but serves as a touchstone in a more complex book. And as a reader, I love those subtle setting clues or unusual wordings that signal a node of conjunction between narratives in separate POVs. Makes the reader feel smart—always a good thing!

  14. Great tips, LJ! I was reading a book the other day and had to stop. Too many coincidences were driving me crazy. Sometimes it happens in real life, but usually not.

    Morgan Mandel

  15. I don't employ time/date stamps - but I do keep track of events in my outline. One more reason why I do extensive outlines! I write crime fiction as well, and that time line can be all important.

  16. Thanks for the visit, LJ. I'll drop back in over the weekend to see how comments are going.

  17. Very interesting, LJ. And great advice for writers.

  18. I enjoyed this short clinic on writing. I have been experimenting with parallel plots.

    Thank you.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.