Does the story relayed in a journal have to be a "co-plot"?

by Natalie

Question: You just answered a question for me about whether ICs can be dead, and that answer was very clear, but something else you said in that response raised a completely separate question for me. I hope it's okay that I post a separate question.

I'm writing the fantasy with the healer who can magically "take" wounds from others, but has to heal normally. Her dead aunt is the IC by way of her journal. You suggested that I could weave the journal throughout the book and have the aunt's example throw the heroine into conflict in her own story arc.

I could do that, (and I even have a good idea about how it could work) but I have a couple of worries.
1. I've seen stories done where letters or journals form sort of a co-plot where the character writing the journal and the character in the present are both essentially main characters. Would it take away from originality to use an approach that's already been done? I don't want the story to feel too formulaic.
2. I was also planning on my heroine also finding out that the aunt is really her biological mother and the woman my heroine thinks is her mother is really her aunt. This woman (Lumi) has been wanting to let my heroine in on the secret for a few years now, but various things have prevented it. If I use the journal to point to training my MC can get to make herself more useful, to tell her something about her true origins, and then have this change in how she perceives her aunt/mother, it feels like I'm trying to do too much with it. Is that a faulty read on my part?

The way I have things right now, my heroine eventually stops using her ability. Between the dangers to her own life when injuries or illness are life-threatening and the fact that magic users either have to run away and join this nomadic group called the Wayfarers and live on the edges of society or else face capture and be sentenced to these work camps with terrible conditions (and unbeknownst to her, things are worse than she's been told), not using her ability seems like a good choice. And of course she wrestles with her decision not to use her gift every time someone dies who she could have saved.

I put her in a position she has to decide whether to risk her life to try to help someone with a mystery illness who the regular healers can't help at all and who is believed to have some intelligence about a surprise attack an old enemy of her country, who used some devastating magical attacks against her country the last time they attacked, may be about to mount. A possible attack is believed to be imminent. So, there are plenty of stakes, both personal and for her country. Clearly, I could give her aunt some kind of parallel situation where she's faced with the question of whether to heal or not.

My MC decides to risk her life, nearly dies, the person is saved, the intelligence is gained, and her country's military surprises the enemy attackers and saves the day. I was having her read the journal during her recovery, then planned to
send Lumi in to come spill the beans about not being her biological mother. In gratitude for services rendered, the King was going to pay her passage to Tel. And as things end, she's on the boat about to leave, and she makes her first entry in a new journal. Thus things are set up for a second book about her adventures getting her training.

My question is, does the journal really NEED to be elevated to a co-plot? Can it stay a sub-plot?

Answer: Dramatica theory states that every complete story features four throughlines, which express four different perspectives on the story.

They are...

1. The overall throughline. This is what most people might call the main plot that concerns the story goal, which is the goal or concern that affects or involves most people in the story world.

2. The main character throughline. This is the arc of the main character's inner conflict. In concerns who they are in the beginning, how they are pressured to change, whether they choose to change, and whether they end up happier because of that choice.

3. The impact character throughline. This is the arc of the impact character that pressures or influences the main character to change by following a different approach.

4. The relationship throughline. This is the arc of the evolving relationship between the main and impact characters, who often share a perspective that sets them apart from the other characters (e.g. in your story, they are both healers).

First, don't worry about the fact that journal entries have been used as subplots in other books. There are very few original techniques of story telling. Where the originality matters is in your own voice, story, and characters. Too often, when writers strive to avoid being "formulaic" they end up abandoning the principles of good story telling and create works that are less emotionally engaging.

In the case of your story, obviously the journal will be written from the aunt's perspective, and the aunt is the main character of her own story. However, what makes the aunt the impact character is that the main character (the niece) is reading the aunt's story and influenced by it. The main character must consider whether the aunt's different approach might be the best one, and whether she should adopt it.

Whether the aunt's story becomes a co-plot versus a sub-plot depends on how fully you develop it -- how many pages you choose to devote to the aunt's voice. To have a complete arc, you may need a minimum of three or four journal entries (representing the setup, complication, crisis, and resolution), but the length of each entry is up to you. You can also expand each phase of the arc into a sequence of journal entries to give the aunt a bigger presence, but again it's your choice.

Incidentally, the aunt should be using her alternative approach from the beginning of her arc. Since you want the main character to change, the aunt should stay steadfast. So at the aunt's personal crisis, she should stay with her approach despite any temptation not to, and the outcome of that choice should validate her approach. In this way, the impact character differs from the main character, who starts with the wrong approach and changes at her crisis.

Best of luck.

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