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Subplots: Building Blocks

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

After giving us the three rules of subplots (connection, conflict, and range), Don Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel gives some steps on how to build subplots.

The first step he gives is to create a timeline of the main plot and the subplot. Then look for areas where they connect. More likely than not, he writes, you will probably find connections you didn’t realize were there which you can take advantage of to not only build the subplot, but to also add conflict and range to the main plot.

The second step he gives is to interweave the characters. Don’t give secondary characters just one role in the book—give them multiple roles. For example—have your heroine’s best friend be the doctor who has to tell the hero his father has died in an accident. Or your hero’s brother is the man who put the heroine’s father’s hardware store out of business by bringing in a big franchise chain-store. These connections don’t have to be revealed early—in fact connections like these are sometimes better left for an “aha” moment later in the story where it will create the most tension/suspense. (If you’re a fan of the TV show Lost, think about how all of the characters keep showing up in each other’s backstory—it’s almost a game to see who’s going to pop up in someone else’s “real world” life.) If you have a large cast of secondary and minor characters, look for those whose jobs you can combine into just one character and give that character a bigger role.

But something that can happen with character interconnectedness is a feeling that the relationship is contrived. You have to be able to justify to yourself and to the reader why the connection or interrelationship is there—to convince the reader through building realistic characters that this really could happen. That two men named Desmond and Jack could arbitrarily meet each other while running steps in a stadium one day and then three years later find themselves facing each other with guns in their hands down in a weird, psychological-experiment bunker on a seemingly deserted island in the middle of nowhere. (Have I mentioned I’m addicted to Lost?)

Third, if you are having trouble choosing characters to use for your subplot, look at the range of your main characters’ lives. Who is in their life from a different background or social stratus who can weave in and out and bring contrast and conflict to the story? Is there someone of a different “level” with whom your main character can change places—one experiences a sudden fall while the other a sudden elevation?

Fourth, be sure your subplot is not the same storyline as your main plot. Two Cinderellas in one story isn’t going to strengthen it if they both meet their princes and live happily ever after. Be sure your subplot provides some contrast to and conflict for the main plot. Remember the example in my first post in this series on the two subplots in Pride and Prejudice: Charlotte and Jane. Both provide contrast to Lizzy’s story—Charlotte’s story by challenging Lizzy’s ideals of romance, and Jane’s by challenging Lizzy’s trust in true love conquering all.

Finally, don’t let your subplot steal the show. Have you ever seen a movie where a minor character is either so charming, or so funny, or so intense that the scenes he’s in sparkle and the rest of the film falls flat? (Think Pumba and Timon in The Lion King or Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale.) You don’t want that to happen to your main plot. So, while having a well-developed subplot can be important, don’t spend so much time developing the subplot that your main story suffers.

Most of the time, a subplot will grow organically out of your main story. If not, your readers may not buy into your story if it seems forced or contrived. Remember, “When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me” (Jeff Shaara). Don’t force it. Just let it happen.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    Tuesday, November 21, 2006 5:37 pm

    This is intense STUFF! Kind of makes you wonder, now tell me WHY I want to write again?

    Subplots seem to me like learning to crochet (which I am NOT very good at doing yet.) If I have the hook right and the thread in place, the tension is too lose. If the tension is okay, I’ve dropped the hook or the thread comes unraveled.


  2. Anonymous permalink
    Tuesday, November 21, 2006 11:02 pm

    I’ll have to re-read the Maass book, I think I went through it too fast. I like the workbook too!


  3. Anonymous permalink
    Friday, November 24, 2006 4:50 pm

    I love the advice not to let a sprawling cast run all over when you can streamline it by giving characters multiple tasks. Such good advice. And I know when I read a book where this is done effectively, I always thing “Man, that author was brilliant! I’d never have thought of that!”


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