Subplots are everything in your story other than your main storyline. Basically a story is similar to a bunch of threads woven together to make a rope. You've got to make sure everything in your story ends inside of that rope to make it a strong one. If strings extend beyond the main area of the rope, those strings will unravel the entire rope.

The rope, from the diagram I used earlier, is that storyline that springs from your original idea and drives to the climax/resolution of the story. Note that all the subplots (the smaller arrows) all eventually end up at least once coming back into the main storyline (and staying there. Don't let them wander off again and not come back).

Don't have loose ends. If you put something in your story make sure it serves a purpose and that you close the loop by the end of the book. Don't put things in your novel just because they are neat or you like writing about them. And use everything you do put in as much as possible. The best stories are very tightly woven with almost every single occurrence/fact/character serving multiple purposes in keeping the story going.

Don't write something just to make a point or move the story along. Sometimes you get to a place where you need to present a scene or action to keep the story going; spend some time and make the scene or action have more than one connection to the original idea. Have it serve multiple purposes.

Chekov once said: Don't have a gun in Act One unless you fire it by Act Three. This is true of writing. Don't throw superfluous things into your story. The reader doesn't know the significance of whatever you write so the reader assumes that everything is significant. You disappoint your reader if you have a scene that appears to be important, but you never refer back to it, and wrote it only to keep your action moving.

I have often been misled when reading manuscripts for critique because I misjudge the importance of something in early chapters that is never mentioned again. In one case a writer had a large explosion occurring that destroyed quite a bit of property and killed many people. I assumed that this explosion was tied into the main plot; in fact, I figured that the "bad guys" had caused the explosion. Yet the explosion was never mentioned again nor really explained. The author had simply used it to set up the circumstances causing the hero to have to use a different escape route. It totally threw me off the original story for over fifty pages as I kept anticipating a reference back to that explosion.

To keep suspense and different levels of intrigue you present something and allow the reader to make the "casual" inference/supposition. Yet you know there is a more complex level with a different reason/purpose that eventually will be unveiled and the reader can look back and say "Oh Yeah."

In the process of writing a book look at everything that is said and something minor can later turn out to be rather important.

An example is in Pat Conroy's The Lords Of Discipline when the main character is in his roommate's father's study talking to the father and he sees the man's journals on the bookcase. A minor observation there, as the conversation is the critical thing in that scene, but later the journals turn out to be extremely significant when the main character breaks in to read them and discovers the truth that brings about the conclusion.

Another example of what I mean when I talk about having your subplots serve multiple purposes is as follows:

The primary purpose of Chapter 2 in my manuscript, Cut Out, is to introduce my main character, Riley. Since he is not yet involved in the crisis (introduced in Chapter 1), I have to introduce him outside of the main story line. I do this by having him in as exciting a situation as possible (to keep the reader hooked). In that chapter I also start the following supplementary loops:

-I introduce another character who will have a role to play later on.

-I introduce a tactical situation and have Riley react to it— although in and of itself, this situation only appears to introduce Riley, I bring some of the factors in this situation in to play later on in the novel when Riley faces other situations and reacts in a similar manner.

-I introduce Riley's relationship with the main female character by having him get a letter from her. We learn about him and his relationship with her when he reads the letter. Furthermore, we also learn about her (she gets introduced here, even though he's in Ft. Bragg and she's in Chicago).

What could have been a pretty straightforward chapter, simply introducing my main character, now serves multiple purposes, some of which will only become visible to the reader, as he gets further into the story.

Be careful of having a subplot that is bigger than your original idea/ main plot. I once looked at a manuscript where one of the subplots had the President of the United States being assassinated. While this certainly moved the main plot along, it also kept the reader wondering how this major event was going to be resolved, to the point of distracting from the author's main storyline.

You must close all your loops. It is very frustrating to the reader to have loose ends when they finish a book. This presents you with a hard task. It forces you to limit your subplots as much as possible. In my second manuscript, the initial storyline was very complex and, quite frankly, it got away from me. I could no longer write because I had too much going on in too many different directions and, most importantly, I could not close all the story-lines at the same time to conclude my story. I had to dump all but the main storyline.

Remember the narrative structure and my beating home the concept of being able to state your story idea in one sentence? There is only one main story. There is only one main crisis. There is one main resolution. Everything else must support that. Sometimes beginning writers get too carried away and overwhelm themselves with subplots to the point that the main idea gets lost. In most cases the writer gets lost writing it, and the reader will certainly be lost reading it.

When in doubt use the KISS technique—Keep It Simple.

Every character, incident, location,—everything—you put into your novel has to be examined very carefully. What additional use can you make of it? The more uses you can make of each subplot, the tighter the story. The tighter the story, the better the manuscript. I cannot over-emphasize the point to you, because I cannot overemphasize it to myself.

For a good example of an extremely tightly written book, try reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (a modern King Lear), which won the National Book Award. Or try The General's Daughter by Nelson DeMille.

A method I use to keep a handle on my subplots is in Appendix 6. I list major characters across the top, and then go down the page in chronological order, playing out each one's actions. Then I draw arrows, lining up the order between these "subplots" in the manner in which they occur and I will write them. I usually find that by the end of the "outline" that I am left with all my characters at the same place (or having died along the way) for the resolution.

This sort of visual outline allows me to keep my subplots from unraveling from the main plot. It also allows me to properly sequence my story, having events happen in the correct order.

I mentioned earlier in this book the power of the subconscious, but let me give you an example of where it can play a role. I have found that in many of my manuscripts I do what I call "planting seeds". I put things into the story that might not necessarily seem important at the time. Minor things—like the journals in the Pat Conroy scene I described earlier. Later on, when I get to a part of the book where I'm

'stuck', I go back through my book and look for these seeds and grow them into solutions. Many times you have already put the solution to a problem late in your book, somewhere earlier in the manuscript yet you're not aware of it until you open your mind to alternate possibilities and go back through the manuscript searching for these seeds.

Here's something to consider: There are three ways Pat Conroy could have written that scene in The Lords of Discipline. Examine these three because you will see it gives you three ways to use subplots and to rewrite:

1. He knew from the very beginning that those journals would be the key that unlocks the answers to the mystery his main character was trying to uncover. In that case, Conroy wrote the journals in when he got to the scene in the study and then when his main character needed to find a key, he already knew what he was going to use.

2. Pat Conroy wrote the journals into the study as part of giving the reader the setting and telling the reader something about the character of the roommate's father. (What do you think of a man who would keep such journals?). When the main character got to the point in the book where he needed a key to unlock the mystery, Pat Conroy, as author, was in the same predicament as his main character (a situation every good writer finds themselves in.). Conroy found himself then working with the same information his main character had. He went back through the book, searching, as the main character would, for a key. When he re-read what he had written—voila.—he realized the journals were the key. He had his main character break in, read the journals, etc. etc. This is a case where Conroy's subconscious gave him the answer before he knew what the question was.

3. There were no journals in the study the first time Conroy wrote this scene. Conroy got to the point where his main character needed a key. Conroy sat and thought about it and realized—voila—he would put the key into the study in the form of the journals. So he went back and wrote them in, thus planting the seed for the flower he would need later on. This part of the ongoing rewriting process that every author must do as a book progressed.

I don't know which of these is what happened. The point is, that every writer uses all three techniques when writing.


If you've ever attended a writing class or conference, the first phrase has fallen upon your ears again and again. What exactly does it mean?

First, let me say that it isn't completely true all the time. There are indeed times in a novel when you should tell. In fact, telling is one of the advantages a novelist has over a screenwriter who must stay completely in the showing mode.

Also, the line between showing and telling is non-existent at times. It's a sliding scale. At one end (telling) is pure exposition; at the other end (showing) is dramatization. Telling tends to summarize information, giving it secondhand. Showing allows you to see, hear, feel, smell and taste, first-hand.

Some things to keep in mind when considering whether to show or tell:

1. Don't do information dumps. Too often people lead with information rather than plot. Information should only be given to the reader when it is absolutely necessary at that moment for the reader to understand the plot. Too many writers give information too soon and the reader doesn't know why they are being given this material.

Also, many people open a book with a nice opening line or paragraph and then suddenly go into memory or flashback. My recommendation is that if you have a memory or flashback in your opening chapter, you are starting the book in the wrong place. Move the start line I discussed in Chapter

15 earlier so that the flashback/memory becomes a real time event.

2. Match the two to the inherent pace of your story. If you have a fast-moving thriller, a lot of telling can really slow down the story. On the other hand, if you are writing a multi-generational family saga, there will probably be a lot of telling. Also, mix the two. If the reader gets too much telling, they might get bored; too much action might overwhelm. You can balance the story out by using both.

3. Always show action. Don't have your action occur 'offstage'. Summarized action is boring.

4. Always show the climax of the book. And hopefully, have your protagonist and antagonist in the scene.

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