Nancy: Narrative Thread

RIAN Archive - Scene Prince Igor Opera

As I continue my quest to seek out stories and whatever lessons I can take from them, this time I turn my attention to opera. You read that correctly: opera. I am an opera fan, although not a particularly well-versed one. My favorite operas have gorgeous arias, duets, and quartets with amazing harmonic lines. In the voices of well-trained and talented singers using their voices like fine instruments, opera music, like so many types of music, can be transcendent. All that being said, I don’t consider opera my go-to medium for story.

However, operas are, at their heart, stories. (Don’t tell my husband, who is an operatically-trained tenor. In his world it’s All. About. The. Voices.) Yes, operas have a reputation for being melodramatic and predictable. In fact, upon entering an opera house, you are handed a program that contains, among other things, a full story synopsis rife with spoilers. Still, many operas also have strong protagonists with well-defined goals, stronger antagonists with their own goals, and a narrative through-line that is going to bring these forces to blows (literally or figuratively) in the end. You know, story.

And professional productions, like those performed at the Met (and live simulcast in HD movie theaters), have amazing directors who know how to block out action to demonstrate story and character growth. So when I went to see a live Met simulcast of Prince Igor this past weekend, I went in thinking about action, about looking for interesting choices the director has made, and about what I could steal borrow when writing plot through action for my own characters. I came out thinking about the narrative thread, and how the loss of it can torpedo your entire story.

I knew there were problems with the story before I ever got to the theater. In fact, there have been problems with this opera since it was first completed, after Borodin, the composer, died, leaving the opera still unfinished after 18 years of working on it (how’s that for a timeline for a WIP? Yikes!). After his death, some of his composer buds got together and finished it for him, but the pieces of the libretto (story) and the music were disjointed and episodic, like WIPs often are.

The Met tried to remedy some of the problems, namely the fact that the protagonist and namesake of the opera just disappears in Act II. At least they reorganized the arias so Prince Igor was mentioned in each scene, first with his wife the princess lamenting his absence, then with the townswomen crying to her that in his absence, a bunch of hooligans are kidnapping maidens and generally wreaking havoc in town, and finally with the leader of the hooligans (who is the princess’s brother because, why not?) deciding he must quick! crown himself the new prince before the rightful prince returns. But still, there is neither hide nor hair of Prince Igor himself in the entire act.

Another problem that they didn’t fix is the antagonist. I would tell you more about him/her if I knew who/what that was supposed to be. At the beginning of Act I, it seems to be the Enemy, whom Prince Igor and his troops will march off to fight. By the end of the Act, it seems to be their leader, the Khan, who has captured our hero in battle. But then switch to Act II with its missing protagonist, and the antagonist has fallen off the map as well, to be replaced, I suppose, by the town’s new nemesis, the princess’s brother. Only he is not directly interfering with the missing protagonist, and then Act II ends with someone (the Kahn? some other enemy?) attacking the town and the princess’s brother dying, so he won’t be the antagonist in Act III. Act III turns into the world’s longest denouement, showing the aftermath of the attack on the town, and then, voila! there is the captured protagonist from Act I with no explanation of how or when he got back to town or how he escaped his captors. Are you starting to see how the lack of a narrative thread made this 4+ hour story a nightmare to follow?

When I popped onto the magical interwebs earlier today, I saw a post on Jenny Crusie’s blog discussing main plots and subplots, complete with fancy color-coded graphs to show screen time for the main and subplots in various TV show episodes. There were places where the colors overlapped because a subplot being shown on screen was advancing the main plot. If I had to do a graph for this opera, I would need three colors, one for each act. And there would be no overlap. I think there was one main theme, WAR IS HELL. It was hell when the troops had to leave their families and when they were defeated on the battlefield. It was hell when the hooligans took over the town and the soldiers weren’t there to save the womenfolk because they were off to war. And it was hell in the aftermath of the attack on the town. But main plot and subplots? I couldn’t tell you what they were.

So what did I learn from this week’s foray into story in new and interesting places? I learned that subplots that don’t support the main plot can break the narrative thread, or at least get it so tangled up, it’s impossible to unravel. For my own story, I’m going to work on creating subplots that support or echo or reverse but in some way directly impact the main storyline. I also learned that when going off to war, take the young rowdy drunkards with you or they will overrun the town….or steal your maidens…or something…I’m still puzzling through that subplot. Or was it the main plot?

How are subplots working in your story? And what writing issues have you been contemplating this past week?

22 thoughts on “Nancy: Narrative Thread

  1. (-: I got a little sidetracked with your tenor. We had an opera soprano-in-training in our dorm, and shower time was a gorgeous experience. I suddenly wanted to turn my hero into a tenor, but I have a feeling he was not born under a singing star.

    My subplots and plots were so intertwined that I had trouble teasing them apart at first for the goal/conflict box at first. Finally, I realized “one plot, one goal” is viable — and that it’s OK to have the same protagonist in a couple of subplots. Also, just because the protagonist is the protagonist in the main plot, that doesn’t mean that s/he has to be the protagonist in all the subplots, too.

    • “I have a feeling he was not born under a singing star”…this made me LOL 🙂

      I think most protagonists have subplots, just by the nature of having other stuff going on in their lives that will complicate/make trouble for their main goal and conflict. Frex, in my WIP, Eileen has two romantic subplots at the moment, but I have to see how it resonates with the betas. There might be a ‘romance contract’ that I’m establishing and breaking, so I’m playing around with that right now.

  2. My subplots are struggling to break free of their chains, but they are being worn to a nub by their shackles and soon might disappear altogether. On the other hand, for weeks now, I’ve been worried that my protagonist and antagonist have not given any room to my romantic hero, who has remained stubbornly offstage, way too shy, or something, to come out here and say his lines. But in the last few days, he got over his stage fright, blasted out to center stage, and now is hogging the spotlight. The director is happy he found his voice, but she is NOT happy that he’s now upstaging everyone else. Plus, there’s a dog. So it’s all very vexing. But that hero, he’s got it going on, so everybody’s pretty happy about that.

    I just watched the Academy Awards, plus, the opera tenor in your house!

  3. Congrats on getting your hero to enter the fray! And I love stories that work in pets (just please don’t let him/her end up like the cat in Roberts’s Montana Sky :-().

  4. I have some questions about subplots, since I missed that section of the McDaniel class and I can’t read any more books about writing or my head will explode.

    Is there different terminology to refer to the different types of subplots? I have a secondary romance which gets some page time; the action is almost entirely off-screen but it creates (friendly) conflict between my heroine and her best friend. I would call this a subplot. I have a third romance in the story, but I’m not sure it qualifies as even a subplot, since we see the characters meet up, some flirting, and then taking committed actions and together. It could be its own book, but in this story its just kind of background activity. Is there a word for this? Is it also a subplot? Then there are the little things, mostly humorous, that have arcs over maybe seven or eight scenes. Are these called subplots, even though they’re short and relatively minor? I think of them as miniplots, but I wonder if they are called subplots or something else.

    The biggest problem I am having in my story has nothing to do with subplots, though. It is that the romance in my book has completely overtaken my plot, much like I was complaining about in JAK’s Eclipse Bay not long ago. At least I can see it and take measures to correct the problem.

    • They may have tackled subplots more seriously in Year Two of McD. I think all we worked with were the action plot and the romance plot — I think most people had the romance plot front and center, but I was working more with the “action” plot. IIRC, every story had a romance, and it had something going on that threw those people together (which I’m calling “action” plot for the lack of a better word).

      I think most of us had more than two plotlines going on. (-: I haven’t even figured out how many plotlines I’ve got going on yet. Gotta get more down on paper.

  5. Taking the second part of your post first, is the romance perhaps the main plot? Maybe the Girls are trying to tell you something :-). If the romance is the main plot, that doesn’t mean there still can’t be strong suspense, or thriller, or mystery (or whatever the subgenre is) elements in it. It does mean that one of the h/h is the protagonist and the other is the main antagonist. And there can still be an outside antagonist/bad guy, as all strong subplots have their own antagonist. Just something to think about…

    I think the second and third romances you describe are each a subplot. If you can find a way to make them impact your protagonist (positively, negatively, setting a good or bad example, etc.), they can help buoy your main plot – always a plus! The humorous things are probably running gags, but if they are repeated, they might be motifs (things that show up multiple times, usually at least three, and tie back to the story or theme in some way). I love running gags because they make the reader feel like she’s ‘in’ on the jokes the characters share. And those do tend to evolve, just as they do in real life among real friends/partners.

    I would delineate suplots and motifs by saying a subplot, like a plot, should have a protagonist with a goal who changes (arcs) due to the events that occur, prefereably in reaction to something being done by an antagonist with his or her own goal. A motif is something we see repeated, but that is not intrinsically helping to evolve the characters, if that makes sense. Jenny has some good stuff in the comment section in one of her recent posts talking about ‘conflict’ not necessarily being argumentative and confrontational. In romance plots/subplots, the conflict is often the struggle of two people working through the adjustments necessary to go from a single to a couple. Frex, in my romance subplots for my main protag Eileen, one of her love interests is Ted, a guy who is exactly what she is looking for ‘on paper’, but who isn’t quite the right fit in person. The struggle comes from the characters trying to force something that isn’t coming naturally. With her other love interest, Jack, things go too well in person, but there are ethical issues surrounding them getting involved due to his meeting her while he is ‘on the job’. No knock-down, drag-out fights here, just subtle maneuvering, bargaining, flirting and retreating type ‘conflicts’.

    • Wow, thanks for such an energy-intensive reply! This does help.

      I don’t think the romance can be the main plot, although this has occurred to me, too.
      The protag/antag dynamics just aren’t there. The problem is that while I like my plot, I always focus on the romantic aspects of a story in my reading and that bleeds through to my writing. It will be fine if I employ a little self-discipline.

      Regarding the subplots- thank you, this did help me clarify my thinking. The third romance is a subplot that was created to evoke change in the protagonist and to support the main plot and one of the subplots, so that’s good to go. The second romance subplot is pretty separate from this story, but is a direct lead-in to the next book so I think it justifies its page space.

      Clearly the things I was referring to as miniplots are actual subplots. They have protagonists, antagonists, turning points, climaxes and resolutions. They’re just short, funny, foreshadowed and embedded within the overall plot structure. If you’ve read any of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, they take up a similar space as one of Stephanie’s “skips.” Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can clearly see the difference between these and the running gags (of which there are two) and the cat (whose role I can’t seem to pin down with a proper literary term).

      Eileen, Ted, and Jack sound like just my sort of reading! Where is that pre-pre-order button on Amazon? 🙂 I do like a nice love triangle. In fact, the second romance plot in my story leads to a (very different from yours!) love triangle in my second book.

      Thank you so much for your help!

      • Also loving the sound of your love triangle Nancy – we do need that pre-pre-pre order button!

        Jennifer – I’ve had exactly the same struggles as you with the battle for supremacy between mystery and romance. I’ve written 3-4 (rubbish, unpublishable) book-length stories previously that were mystery first, romance second and now I’ve switched it round. For me (right now, might change at another point in time), this is working better (and it’s interesting you say about focusing on romantic aspects of a story in your reading, because I was in denial about the fact I did that for years).

        Anyhow, that’s all a digression – what I really wanted to say was to go back to Eclipse Bay – did it really matter that the romance overshadowed the mystery? It was still a mystery. You enjoyed the book (and so did I – thanks!). I’ve been a big mystery reader over the years (I love Stephanie Plum – is that the tone you’re going for?) and one of the reasons that the romance has to be toned down is that they are trying to work a series with the same protagonist and so they have to eke the bloody romance out for books and books (Janet Evanovich, in fact, I’m looking at you here – just make her choose, finally). Unless you’re doing that, I see no reason why the romance and mystery can’t carry equal weight, really (I’d love to hear other opinions on that). Of course, you have to make a decision in one sense, in that the primary story has to finish last for full reader satisfaction, but I would have thought that’s something fairly easy to tinker with once you get to the stage where you’re happy with what you’ve got.

        I can’t wait to read it… how far through are you?

        • ps – also, importantly, Jennifer, I like your new symbol thing (what are they called?)

        • Thanks! It’s a gravatar. I’ve attached it to the Jennifer O’Brien pseudonym email address. I read somewhere this past week that said it’s important to attach an image to your ‘platform’? ‘brand’? – whatever, to your professional name even years before you’re ready to sell your work so people will recognize you online. I already had a gravatar account so it took all of five minutes to work up an image and add the new email address to the account. Nothing to it.

        • ” to go back to Eclipse Bay – did it really matter that the romance overshadowed the mystery?”

          Eclipse Bay feels fuzzy around the edges, not sharp and clean the way it could if the antagonist was made accessible and the mystery plot more fully developed, or alternatively if the entire mystery plot were dropped- there is plenty of conflict in the romance arc to sustain the story. Still, I love the book so, no, it doesn’t really matter. I, however, am no JAK. I’m not going to be able to write well enough for my work to shine if I don’t attend to the major issues I can see and know how to fix. I’ll have enough things I’m not able to fix, I have to fix what I can.

          I would love for the romance and mystery to carry equal weight. That’s the problem, the romance is choking out the mystery until that plot feels almost extraneous, and the romance can’t carry the book. But I can fix it. Later. I think I’m a little less than three quarters of the way through. It will go a lot faster if I quit going back and tinkering with the earlier stuff.

          I loved the first twelve Stephanie Plum books, but no, that’s not the tone I’m aiming for at all. I mentioned them because they came to mind as a good example of other stories with complete subplots embedded within a very limited number of scenes. I want my books to be happy, lightly amusing little contemporaries. A relaxing way to pass an evening, with good dreams that night and a cheerful mood to start the next morning. Fingers crossed. 🙂

        • I love the sound of ‘a relaxing way to spend the evening’ – in fact, I am rather tired this evening so am re-reading an old Georgette Heyer for perfect relaxation. I can’t wait to hear more about your story – of course, as I’ve shanghaied (if that is a word) my way into this group rather than being one of your original McD crowd, I know much less about everybody’s stories than I would like – just bits and pieces I’ve picked up from all of your posts (if there is anywhere that you’ve all written summaries, please do let me know as I’m really interested to know more about what you’re all working on.)

          Off to think about my gravatar now…. (actually that’s not true, I’m off to have a glass of wine and lie on the sofa reading Arabella)

        • I love that gravatar too, Jennifer.

          Still thinking about Eclipse Bay. I hadn’t considered dropping the mystery sub-plot altogether, but I really like that idea. Or scale it back to a mystery that impacts on the romance (challenges local dyed-in-the-wool attitudes) rather than a full-blown heroine-in-peril suspense. Still liked it a lot the way it is, though.

          I gave up on Stephanie Plum years ago, after book seven? eight? because I wanted her to make her mind up. How many books is it now? And who is she (not) choosing between these days?

      • Perfect timing, ladies, thank you! You were having this discussion yesterday as I was stuck on a scene. I persisted and so spent all day digging myself deeper into the mire. It’s a turning point scene and I want to nail it before I move on (I should be good for ages after this till I get stuck again.) I finally realised (as I was brushing my teeth, I needed it after a whole day gnashing them) that I was stuck because I was making it about the Rose v Sasha plot and the Girls want it to be Rose v Ian. Rose v Sasha would have turned the whole of the rest of the book into a direction the Girls flat-out refused to go. So I think it’s the Eclipse Bay question again, and it seems to be romance first for me after all, with Sasha as a (very) strong sub-plot.

        • Stephanie still isn’t choosing between, you guessed it, Joe Morelli and Ranger. I just read them in a desultory kind of way if I see them in the library but basically every plot is still the same.

          Well done for persevering yesterday and how brilliant that you worked out why you were stuck (the best moments) – does it mean that you are motoring ahead today? Are you writing full time at the moment Jilly?

        • So you’re back to where you were at the beginning of the McDaniel class. There is a lot of that going around. I like to think we’re not going in circles, though, but in spirals closing in on our target.

          As for Stephanie Plum, I made it through twelve. I think she’s on twenty now.

        • Yes, Jennifer, I am indeed back to where I was pre-McD, but it doesn’t feel like wasted time. I was thinking about it earlier and decided the detour was worth it. I agree with you – I feel as though I’m closing in on what I want and hopefully it will be lessons learned for the future, too. Luckily class taught me that there isn’t a right answer – only the one that feels right – and it might take several attempts to get there. Without that I’d have driven myself crazy by now.

          I talked to Jenny in class about which plot was uppermost and she said to stop worrying about it, just write the story, and see what happens, especially because the romance plot and other main story plot are often quite equally weighted. I was doing that until I hit the wall yesterday. Although I’m a pantser, I’m a very structured pantser, so in my mind the rest of the story flows from what I’ve written already. So when I wrote a juicy, conflict-filled encounter between Sasha and Rose, in my head the most critical scenes in the rest of the story all became escalating, even juicier encounters between Rose and Sasha. It would have worked, but thinking about it made me feel miserable and I finally realised that wasn’t the story I want to tell.

          I don’t think I could have got to this point before, because until last week Rose’s plan wasn’t strong enough to support a conflict with Ian on the romance plot. Now I think it is, though I’m having a notebook-and-pen day today trying to think through the implications. I still have Sasha in the story, from the beginning, with the same goal, which is much, much stronger than the pre-McD version, it’s just that now her goal and her behavior is the fuel that drives Ian and Rose’s conflict.

          Here’s hoping I don’t change my mind again, I’ll keep you posted, of course 🙂

        • McD was definitely not wasted time. As far as I can tell from a distance, as it were, we’ve all grown tremendously as writers because of Jenny’s instruction, even those of us like me who were only in for the first few classes.

          It’s hard to keep in mind that the “lessons” are not as important as “The Girls.” Which, if I remember correctly, was the very first lesson. 🙂 So glad you’ve stepped back from the plot line that was making you miserable and are on your merrily romantic way again.

        • Still Ranger or Morelli, Rachel? Good to know I haven’t missed anything 🙂

          Yes, I am living the dream, writing full-time. I tried to combine writing with working full-time but it was impossible so I got organised to finance a career break/sabbatical/delayed mid-life crisis. I have to say I’m loving every minute.

        • Yes! What Jennifer said about spirals. The real “heroine’s journey” I think (-:. “I’m back at this same place, with a slightly different perspective.” I read something about this last year. I wish I could remember where.

        • I’m so impressed that you’ve got yourself so well organised Jilly – creating the space to work on your writing full time is no mean feat 🙂

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