Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fiction Friday: Subplots, Part 1

Whoa! Fiction Friday!? Haven't seen one of these in a while....

That's because I've been living Fiction Friday, rather than writing about it.

One of the things I've been struggling with is subplots. Guidelines for novels and screenplays recommend no more than three subplots. I have four, and at some point I'm going to have to axe one.

Why? Because there's not time, in a 90,000 word novel or a 90-minute screenplay, to really develop more than that.

Why have any at all? you ask.

Because your main plotline, no matter how riveting, is going to get really tedious if it's all we hear about for that many pages.

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 unforseen 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 unforseen 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 unforseen 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 unforseen 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 plotline and all the subplots revolve around 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 plot 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 that comes out today), 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.

If you're paying attention, you may have noticed that even though I started out by saying novels should have no more than three subplots, Sara Gruen manages to pull off that fourth, bookended subplot.

Well, for one thing, she's Sara Gruen. And, for another, she doesn't do that last one very well. (My opinion.)

Next week: Subplots, Part 2

4 comments:

anymommy said...

I absolutely love how you break these things down. (And I agree about the fourth subplot in Water for Elephants, although I could never have stated why it didn't work for me like this.)

Dave King said...

I think I'll just Hold Tight for now.
You covered the ground usefully.

deegarretson said...

I've just been thinking about subplots because I was reading about the making of the second Star Wars movie (I guess I can admit to being a geek/nerd here, right?) and George Lucas said he wanted each of the main three characters to have their own subplot.

Since I write kidlit, I hadn't thought much about subplots beyond one for the main character, but your post has made me think I should go a little more complicated...

Far Side of Fifty said...

Sometimes I get bogged down in subplots..who was who again..
I really enjoyed Water for Elephants, and it is one of the few books my husband had read ALL the way through..so kudos to Sara for that:)

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