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Subplots–Decorating a Christmas Tree

Monday, December 6, 2010

I originally ran this article in 2006 . . . and I thought it would be fun to run it again, given the time of year.

I’ve lived on my own for a little more than ten years [ed. almost fifteen years now!]. In 2005, for the first time, I bought a little, pre-lit, 4-foot, artificial Christmas tree. Then, I had to decide how to decorate it. I had a small box of eclectic ornaments collected and received over the years that I could have used, but I really like cohesiveness and uniformity in the decorations in my home. So I chose to adorn it with glass balls in dark purple and gold (some shiny, some matte) with gold garland and a gold and white angel at the top. Some might find it boring, but I loved it. It was pretty, I liked to look at it, and it represented me—purple is my favorite color and in combination with gold reminds me of home (Baton Rouge where I spent every summer and eventually went to college at LSU. If I had a ten-foot tree, I would probably not do just two colors of glass balls. I would use all of my childhood ornaments and find others that represented me as well—because a large tree doesn’t look as unkempt or overwhelmed with a variety of shapes and colors.

Subplots are much like Christmas ornaments. Imagine your story as a Christmas tree:

You have your story structure (the tree itself)—the conventional structure of your genre/your plot at its most basic form.

You have your main characters: The lights.

Then you start adding ornaments.
Setting: gold glass balls
External conflict for the POV characters: red glass balls
Internal conflict for the POV characters: green glass balls
Spiritual conflict for the POV characters: blue glass balls

If you have a “small tree” (a short story or novella), you are going to have a hard time fitting much more than this on your “tree.” Even in short category fiction, there isn’t really room for much other than the main plot involving two POV characters.

However if you have a “large tree” (a full-length novel), there is much more room to add more ornamentation:
Additional POV characters: the themed ornaments you’ve picked up everywhere you’ve ever traveled
Subplot A*: animated Hallmark ornaments
Subplot B**: all of those felt reindeer and Santa Clauses you made in G.A.s or Sunday School
Minor characters: tinsel and garland

      *Subplot A—perhaps involves those additional POV characters and seems to be separate from the main plot but ends up having an effect on the story’s outcome.
      **Subplot B—perhaps involving the antagonist and his schemes for derailing the main plot.

Do you have to put every single ornament on the tree?

No. Nor do you have to explore every idea for a subplot you have. Have you ever seen a Christmas tree so overloaded with ornaments that you couldn’t see the tree or the lights because of everything hanging on it? Have you ever seen a tree fall over because the weight either isn’t distributed properly or was just overwhelmed? You don’t want your novel to be like that overwhelmed tree. But you don’t want a Charlie Brown tree, either.

I’ve had manuscripts in the past that were like a tree starting to lean to one side because all of my ornaments were hooked onto the main plot. One of the first rules of developing a subplot is to take a minor character who is involved in his or her own plot and start writing that plot as well—interrupting the main plot when it will build the most suspense—all the while making sure it is relevant to the main plot.

When writing Ransome’s Honor, I had a brainstorm. I’d written early in the manuscript (in a desperate measure to try to stir up the story) that the hero’s mother and sister were coming to town. But it wasn’t until the sister, Charlotte, came on stage that I realized she was just the subplot I’d been needing. I suddenly found myself not only writing in her POV, but seeing how she provided much of the plot and conflict for Book 2 of the trilogy, and became vitally important to the ultimate climactic conclusion in Book 3. Charlotte’s appearance made me realize I had a ten-foot tree, not a four-foot tree when it came to the Ransome Trilogy!

What about you? Do you have a large tree or a small tree. What kinds of ornaments (subplots) are you decorating it with?

  1. Monday, December 6, 2010 1:11 pm

    This is a really good post following my reading of today’s Seekerville post by Mary Connealy about plot lines in the Harry Potter series! I think I have a medium-sized tree – probably about a 7-footer – and should extend over three books. I do introduce a character in book 1 that, when I first wrote her, I wasn’t sure what to do with her. When I started plotting out, in my mind, books 2 and 3, I found her home, and she could possibly be the main character. Interestingly enough, when I stopped thinking of three books following the same 2 characters, my tree started standing up a little straighter. Those subplots becoming main plots in subsequent stories are making more sense than following the same plot through three books. Yawn. I mean, how many times can you read a story about boy-meets-falls in love with-gets engaged to-marries-girl in the span of three books? Maybe in a 10-footer, but not in a medium-sized 7-footer!


  2. Monday, December 6, 2010 10:15 pm

    What a great analogy. We decorated our tree this evening.


  3. Tuesday, December 7, 2010 2:24 am

    Awesome analogy. Looks like somebody is in the Christmas writing spirit 🙂



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