I’m having a really hard time with forward momentum with my WIP—not because it doesn’t have a strong plot, but because I don’t have anything to write about BUT the main plot.
So, over the next few posts, I’m going to be delving into subplots: what they are, how to write them, and how to make sure they’re well incorporated into the story so they don’t detract from the main plot, but enhance it.
In Plot Ansen Dibell writes:
Well handled, [subplots] can deepen the story’s context, offer ways to mirror or contrast with the main action, and be used in pacing to offer foreground motion while the main plot is in a temporary lull. When the main plot is busy, they can generate suspense when the narrative splits off to follow the subplot for a while before rejoining the main action, generally with added momentum and impact when they again converge.
Laura Yeager, in her article “Put a Subplot to Work in Your Story” (The Writer, October 2006) writes:
The subplot will either contrast with or run parallel to the main plot. For instance, say you’re writing a story about a woman who wants to get married and is looking for a husband. A subplot in this story might belong to a character who is through with men altogether. This contrasts with the main plot. Or, say you’re writing the same story about a woman who wants to get married. But let’s say her friend also wants to get married.
This plot could possibly run parallel to the main plot.
This example reminds me of two subplots in one of my favorite novels, Pride & Prejudice: Charlotte and Jane. Charlotte’s story—a woman marrying not for love but to avoid being a spinster for the rest of her life—contrasts Lizzy’s story:
“Engaged to Mr. Collins! My dear Charlotte—impossible!” . . .
“Why should you be surprised my dear Eliza? Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman’s good opinion, because he was not so happy as to succeed with you? . . . I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” . . .
Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. . . . She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. . . . And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk inher esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.
If you are familiar with the story, you will remember that later, Lizzy visits Charlotte and Mr. Collins for six weeks and is surprised by how content Charlotte is with the life she has chosen. Mr. Collins is still as annoying as ever, but Charlotte has reconciled herself to her husband’s ways and is happy in the knowledge that she has a secure future. This contrasts with Elizabeth’s romanticism—especially since the first proposal from Darcy comes at the Collins’ cottage—who has sworn never to marry unless for love.
Jane’s story both parallels and contrasts Lizzy’s. Jane and Bingley openly fall in love while Lizzy and Darcy are antagonistic toward each other (although are also falling in love). Jane and Bingley are then torn apart because of the interference of his sisters and Darcy because they feel Jane isn’t good enough for him. Darcy, in the meantime, proposes to Lizzy in spite of his “sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination.” In this instance, the Jane/Bingley subplot provides conflict for the main plot, as it is Darcy’s part in separating Jane from Bingley that drives Elizabeth to not just decline Darcy’s proposal, but to do it in such a way as to make him change his ways and do what he can to save Elizabeth’s family’s reputation to redeem himself from his “ungentlemanly” behavior. At the end, after Elizabeth has accepted Darcy’s proposal, the two couples are once again contrasted, as the family gathers in the sitting room after dinner:
The evening passed quietly, unmarked by anything extraordinary. The acknowledged lovers (Jane and Bingley) talked and laughed; the unacknowledged (Lizzy and Darcy) were silent. Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth; and Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so; for, besides the immediate embarrassment . . . she was aware that no one liked him but Jane; and even feared that with the others, it was a dislike which not all his fortune and consequence might do away.
Next time—with the help of some experts—I’ll look into how to develop a subplot.