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.
I love subplots, and I’m willing to use them in short fiction, as well. I don’t know about other writers, but I find it very hard to go back and weave a new thread in. Usually what will happen is that I come to a fork in the road, and one path introduces a new character with new goals and stuff; then I just have to be very careful to keep braiding that character into the story, like a French braid.
If we stick to that analogy, then for obvious reasons, you don’t want to introduce a new character/plot in at the end of the story — you have this loose strand at the end of the braid that catches on things. If that character/plot/motivation at the end is essential, then basically, I have to undo the entire braid, go back to the beginning, and try to re-braid it . . . and in the meantime, smooth out former problems, but also introduce new mistakes.
I get what you are saying about thematic stuff holding the whole braid together. In Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, you’ve got several strands of subplots, but they are all generally about 1) love and 2) being mature enough to stand up for one’s self (which is tied into proving one is ready to love and marry). The main story is Miles wooing a woman he met in the last book. The subplots drive and complicate his plot. They include: brother Mark is starting a new enterprise in biological food-bug production. Mark’s girlfriend Kareen is trying to prove to her parents that she can take care of herself, and deserves to go off-planet for another year of schooling (plus, that she can be a good girl and still have sex with her boyfriend). Emperor Gregory is marrying his True Love (which isn’t really a plot, but it drives the plots of almost everything else). Cousin Ivan wants to marry. Kareen’s sisters all want to marry or have subplots involving finding lovers (she has three sisters). And Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) is determined to wrest control of the Countship from her evil cousin (and she’s gone to the trouble of having a sex change in order to do it). And as important as Miles’ plot is his love’s plot: Ekaterin is trying to get over her abusive ex and become an independent woman. I think I’m missing a few subplots here. It’s amazing how they all work together . . . but this was not Bujold’s first rodeo. It’s the 12th book in the Vorkosigan saga, so by that point, she knew how to do some plotting and make it hold together.
French-braiding is a great analogy! Fortunately, I’m a lot smoother with subplots than I am with hair.
Just saw some interesting comments on this subject on Robert McKee’s Story website as part of a review of Mary, Queen of Scots, which has two alternating storylines. The review says the movie doesn’t work because they don’t relate causally or thematically. I haven’t seen the movie, but thought the whole review was insightful in its discussion of storytelling craft.
That’s fascinating. The book I’m currently working on has three second-chance-at-love stories, which suggests that they relate thematically, but I’m actually planning to weave them together causally, too.
Good stuff! Thanks!