1. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Subplots, and when the engine steam runs out.

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Mallory, Jan 14, 2011.

    Hey guys,

    So there's this problem I have with my novels, due to which I've only finished one out of the 100s I've started.

    You could maybe call it writers' block, but I see it more as an issue with writing too fast. See, I have a tendency to get the action rolling by page 1, then have the MC unraveling clues and stuff by page 20. I'm definitely a plot-driven person, but I feel like events just happen one after the other (I'm sure being a journalist has worsened this habit of mine).

    What happens as a result: I'm into the main heat by page 30 or so and the novel ends up being extremely underdeveloped.

    I have problems making things tie in.

    I also have problems with subplots.

    What are some ways to use subplots in a way to effectively advance the plot while also not boring readers?

    Should the subplot tie into the MC's plot/dilemma, or just serve as secondary character development?

    Sorry - I'm no newbie to writing and I know I should know this stuff...but...I don't.
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know my way of approaching it is unusual, but I just don't worry with the first draft. Then I almost entirely rewrite it taking things out, adding things and reordering them.

    For example for NaNo Merlin was introduced in the first draft in order to make whole story work better he got a new subplot and came in the fourth.
     
  3. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    The thing I see with subplots is that they're downtime for the characters. Everyone needs to eat/sleep/whatever. Why not tackle other plot options at the same time?

    The masters for 3rd person subplots are the Simpsons. So so much to learn from them about how to tie 3 stories together. Many many episodes involve 1 character off on a big emotional quest, while another has their own problem, and at some point they often cross over, say, Homer's small problem providing Lisa the inspiration to solve her big one.

    Watching Friends is pretty good too - many episodes feel like almost all subplot. :p I like watching them just because I love the way they construct jokes. I might not laugh at them all, but I can see what they did, and that's always good.

    Watching 20 minute TV episodes is a fast and crude way to understand the craft of writing, but if you attack them with a writer's mind, there is a lot to tell. :p Far more than you might think writing off any junk TV.

    More seriously, though, in my own writing I think I use subplots fairly okay. I don't really think of them as subplots in the Simpsons sense, though, which are distinct, but smaller, joke storylines. They're all contributing to the end result, but approached through a different angle. Mostly, though, it is just the story of everyone else in the novel. It can be a bit complex in third person and I'm thinking on my feet at the moment, so I'll talk through 1st person so I understand it myself. :p

    In the vampire novel I'm writing at the moment for a laugh, I first of all needed just to show that the main character was a competent monster hunter, and so I threw him into a scenario where he met the main characters, and fought a ghost in the presence of one of them, saving his life. That guy's subplot is that he is now pretty grateful to the hunter, and his puppy-like devotion crops up and is useful/a hindrance throughout, though that's obviously not the plot. At the same time, this group of friends is slowly vanishing. I introduced a vampire early on, and the hunter thinks it's this vampire, and there's some interaction with her, as meanwhile the friends keep on disappearing (mostly so I don't have to deal with way too many extras all at once. Argh. So difficult to keep track of. :p) but this guy is trying to deal with the vampire. So I can use that as a subplot to the main monster, since it'll only be after the vampire's defeated and friends are still vanishing that he realises he was wrong. The repercussions of dallying around with the first two monsters will be felt as a continuing subplot as he finally gets his act together on the third, and only once you find out about THAT monster will you realise some of the rather random information, comments, and actions I've shown are all part of the main plot and not, as suspected, a subplot to the vampire who you all thought was the main plot.

    (I'm not scared of revealing so much - a lot of the story's value is in the terrible jokes ;))

    Anyway. Point is, that it's really just about taking time. A romance is a good subplot to action, just because it'll be moments of slow pace to the fast. Similar is family stories, such as deaths and last requests which lead to main plot information but only through a series of slower scenes, or something like work that's unrelated. A lot of stories forget a character has other needs than racing through the plot - it's always good to find something to focus on in their every day life that can be worked into a small sub plot. In my epic sprawling fantasy novel I may or may not be working on again for some insane reason, the main character is just on a collecting items quest, totally unrelated to her family, but she's forced off to marriage at one point by her father out of the blue - and stumbles on a very important clue thanks to where she goes and who she marries. But I don't just focus on the main plot - I take time to build her relationship with her father early on, spend some time explaining the guy so he doesn't come out of the blue when she has to go marry him, and then when she gets there, I tell of their marriage instead of having her instantly wandering off to explore and stumble on the clue. Later on, I can use the subplot's information to come crashing down on her as important character development, though she initially shrugs it off and escapes with her clue and not a second thought to her new hubby.

    Okay, now I understand how I subplot a bit better, and I'm sorry for rambling, and hope you do too. :D
     
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  4. Angharad Denby-Ashe
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    Angharad Denby-Ashe Member

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    Only word of advice: don't just add subplots for the heck of it because you need more stuff. Subplots have to arise from, or be related someway to the tone and especially the theme of the story. Otherwise they become distracting/boring. :/
     
  5. Serpentine_Poet
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    Serpentine_Poet New Member

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    I don't like using the word "subplot" because it is slightly misguiding for me. I'm of the opinion that unless it is integral, unless it is absolutely necessary for the story's progress, leave it out. The word "subplot" tears me apart inside, because it makes it sound like one part of the piece is more important than another, while to me that is not true. I consider the word "subplot" a misnomer, but roll with it anyway. :p

    So to answer your question, you probably already have what people tend to call "subplots" already, but don't realize it. Romance/relationship and stories that help illuminate the characters who aren't your protagonist are good examples of subplots. To put it simply, if your story needs a subplot to fulfill some aspect of an unfinished piece, then you as the author need to give it one or two. If it does not, then leave them out. I hope I didn't just confuse you more with my misnomer spiel.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A plot is not simply a storyline. A plot is a dynamic element consisting of one actor, one goal or objective, one obstacle or opposition, and one motivation.

    An actor is typically a single character, but it may also be an organization that acts as a single entity (for the purposes of analyzing the plot). Therefore, a band of survivors in a lifeboat trying to reach land before they die of thirst can be considered a single actor in a single plot. The fact that one of them has an infected wound that requires prompt medical care is a separate but related plot.

    Often there is a single plot that is the basis of the story. More often, though, there are a group of associated plots that cooperate toward a common goal. Direct opposition by antagonists are also plots, as are internal conflicts that a character needs to overcome.

    A subplot is a plot that does not appear, at first glance, to be directly connected to the main plot(s). Subplots can eventually complicate an actor's progress toward a goal, or may exist to develop characters. Nevertheless, if they have no consequence to the main plot(s), they should be omitted.

    An important use of a subplot is to modulate tension. Because a subplot can constitute the opposition of another plot, it can increase the stakes for the actor in the other plot. Using the lifeboat example, if one of the passengers is an escaped kidnapper who caused the shipwreck to stage his own death, he may not want any witnesses to his survival left alive. Alternately, a passenger with a medical condition may mean the survivors need to not only find land, but civilization, and they may have an earlier deadline than they originally counted on.
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Thank you. :D
     
  8. JeffS65
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    JeffS65 Contributing Member

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    Not unlike what Cogito wrote, the subplot has to have some consequence in the story.

    I can't pretend that I have much in the way to provide as specifics but if the subplot doesn't intersect with the primary plot in any consequential way, then it seems to lack meaning within the story.

    My thought is that before constructing a subplot is that you need to establish the point where the stories meet and why they meet. That does mean that you should have an overall sense of these two stories together.

    I also think that as you write them, that you may need to alter each story in order to support one another.

    Somebody previously mentioned that the subplot is useful as a relief and a agree that this is one of the uses of the subplot. For me personally, I see it (or use it) as support or moreover, context of the main story.

    Can the subplot bring a broader understanding to the main plot? I see it has to fill in the blanks. In a way, I think it brings in the backstory to the main story...for me anyway.
     
  9. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally I find talking it out helps - whether that be with my husband, asking a question on here, I now have writing friends online and real life that I can work with. If no one else is available my characters work as well lol My blog and short stories really help.
     
  10. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Very true. In the book I'm working on, the subplots actually came about quite organically, in the sense that they were not all planned from the outset.

    I came up with new ideas as I was writing, and then went back and tried to 'interweave' them into the story, i.e. by making mentions of certain things in some way earlier on (such as a certain Public Holiday, which will later become significant as the story unfolds)

    So I guess, as has been suggested, subplots should tie in in some way with the action, and have a 'point' to them. It shouldn't just be filler.
     
  11. D.T.Roberts
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    D.T.Roberts Senior Member

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    For me, subplot is the 'other' aspects of a characters life. Real people have more than one thing going on at a time in their lives. Give your characters some other things to contend with , other than the main stroy goal. Any well developed character will have their own demons to deal with. Give them a personal problem that interferes with the main stroy goal. It could be something that creates an obstacle for the MC or it could end up helping solve the story problem. But give him/her something outside to deal with. For example, a secondary character is crucial to helping the MC solve the story problem but now that secondary character has a more pressing issue to deal with and is unable to help the MC. Now the MC is on his own, unless he decides that by helping the secondary character solve their problem, the MC ends up solving his own. This is a very simplistic example but hopefully it will help.
     
  12. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Cog said it perfectly. Your sub plot, if not directly then indirectly, must have some effect on the main plot. You cannot simply have a main character travel through a forest and encounter a bear and call that a sub plot when he spends a chapter fighting it off (lame example, I know, but I lol'd). The sub plot must have something to do with the main plot.

    With regards to you getting into the action way too fast, I think it's obvious that you need to PLAN the writing a bit more. And also, keep writing different stories. You will learn as you write exactly how to lengthen the story.
     
  13. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Hey guys,

    Thank you all for posting. I appreciate everyone's input. :)

    I agree that subplots have to contribute to the overall plot, and can't just be thrown in for the hell of it. I was just concerned because it's hard not to launch the MC from point A to point B within the first 3 pages of the novel, you know?

    D.T. Roberts, your comment about the secondary character was extremely helpful. I think it actually unstuck my writer's block; I'll be using that idea for a villain instead of a supporting character, but I know exactly what I"m doing to do.

    Thanks!
     

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