One of the things I struggled with when I was learning to write novels was subplots.
Category romances (those shorties you used to see in the supermarket) don’t have subplots. They deal with a single story line and pair of characters. But longer books get really tedious if all we hear about for 350 pages is one set of characters and one story problem.
In a book with subplots, here’s how it goes: your main character encounters an obstacle. She figures out a way to deal with it, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. Meanwhile….
Ah, the all-important meanwhile.
Without that meanwhile, it would read like this: your main character encounters an obstacle. She figures out a way to deal with it, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. So she figures out a way to deal with that, too, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. So then she figures out a way to deal with those, too, only to discover her approach yields unforeseen consequences and she now must deal with them, too. She figures that out and we’re done.
As you can see, without subplots it will be tough to build intensity, and your reader will have problems sustaining interest.
So how do you choose subplots?
In well-written novels, subplots are thematically related to the main plot.
For example, in Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, the theme is how technology has changed our lives. The main plot dealt with parents of a troubled son trying to decide how closely to monitor his online activities. There is a subplot around another set of parents whose son had texted his friend a cryptic message just before leaping off a building. There’s a second subplot involving a serial killer going after women for a reason that turns out to be related to sexting. And there’s a third subplot involving the daughter of the first set of parents and some email messages. Coben’s a brilliant plotter, so these subplots intersect at a lot of points, but it’s the theme, what Robert McKee calls the “controlling idea” that really holds them together.
Sometimes subplots restate and emphasize the main plot and other times they contrast with it.
In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the main plot-line and all the subplots revolve around the hero, Jacob’s, desire to rescue people and/or animals: Marlena, the sadistic animal trainer’s wife, Rosie-the-elephant, Walter-the-clown, Camel-the-roustabout. In the bookended subplot about 93-year-old Jacob, he must rescue himself from the nursing home.
Without spoiling it for those who haven’t read it or seen the movie, I will tell you he’s only successful part of the time. His failed attempts deepen the emotional impact of his successes, and vice versa.
How do you use subplots?
This post originally appeared on The Raisin Chronicles in April, 2011.