Subplot Survival 101

Happy 4th of July!!!

I’ve been in Mexico City this last week so have been out of the loop, but I saw in Friday’s post asking for topic suggestions, a request to deal with the (sometimes) thorny issue of subplots. These usually surface around the middle of the novel and (hopefully!) add  greater depth and complexity to the story. However, sometimes subplots can get unruly, unmanageable, and can mess up your manuscript if you’re not careful.

My current WIP has a number of subplot threads which need to be woven into the larger canvas of the novel, and so I thought I’d try and give some tips on what I’ve discovered as part of my own writing process. An initial caveat – I am an outliner so much of my advice centers on upfront (as well as ongoing) work when working out the plot. For those of you who are ‘pantsers’, although I think much of the advice still stands, you would probably approach the issues in the editing rather than drafting stage. I also highly recommend my fellow TKZ blog mate, James Scott Bell’s, excellent book ‘Plot & Structure‘ for those interested in having a more in-depth analysis into the plotting of their novel.

When approaching the issue of subplots I focus on four main issues:

  • Identification
  • Simplification / Justification
  • Trajectory
  • Resolution

I’ll deal with each of these in turn:

  1. Identification
    When developing the initial outline for my novel, I first ensure that I am clear on the primary premise that forms the basis for the book as this establishes the principal plot which will form the body of the novel. This sounds self-evident but many a book has been derailed by a failure to have a clearly articulated premise and plot – and then what happens? A muddy mixture of plots and subplots which, more often than not, confuse a reader. So if, for instance, the primary plot is a murder investigation, then make sure you are clear on how that investigation will play out before adding   subplots that may add complexity. Once you are clear on the main plot, then you can identify the subplots you want to weave into your novel. When you do identify the subplots you want to incorporate, make sure they add depth rather than merely ‘murk’ to the story!  Subplots could (and often should) focus on deepening the development of your major characters, enhancing the theme that underpins your novel, or providing parallel stories that focus on character relationships and intrigue. One you’ve got these identified the next step is…
  2. Simplification / Justification
    Just like in the identification phase, if there are too many competing subplots a novel may become unnecessarily complex and confusing. That’s not to say you don’t need to have subplots, it just means you want to make sure you don’t have so many that they start to muddy the waters and confuse a reader. I always think it’s important that the subplots add something significant to the story, the loss of which would make the novel less rich and engaging. So if a subplot merely adds an unnecessary layer, diversion, or complexity then bin it and move on to…
  3. Trajectory
    As an outliner, I map out the key plot points for the principal story as well all the subplots. In this way I can ensure a balance in the tension and development of all the key plot threads in the book. It also means I can see how the overall story will pan out with chapters and scenes that progress the main plot as well as the subplots. You don’t want, for example, a subplot to fizzle out or bog down the novel in the middle. Again, its all about adding to the principal story not detracting from it. Finally…
  4. Resolution
    If you do have a number of subplots in your novel, it’s vital that you resolve each of them (as well as the principal plot) so the reader feels a sense of closure and satisfaction. How many books have you read where a subplot seems to just disappear or go nowhere?…this, for me at least, is very frustrating. In my outline, I try to make sure I’ve resolved each of the subplots I’ve introduced. If I want to leave something open for a future book then I want to make sure I’ve done it consciously (and the reader knows this) rather than unconsciously (which will only tick a reader off…).

So these are my key stages when it comes to subplots. Although, as I said, I outline everything, I still have to keep all these issues in mind when I edit my drafts, as inevitably some subplots just don’t pan out or work the way I intended. Then, as often happens, I need to be ruthless in what stays in and what gets chucked.

So fellow TKZers how do you approach the issue of subplots? What would you add to my list, change, or do differently?