Friday, March 23, 2007

Weekend 8: Subplots

kenshin.jpgYes, we're back. :-)

Eighth weekend with "Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery @ Amazon".

This weekend is sub-plots.

This one's a whole lot easier to understand and explain! :-)

A subplot is another story that runs along side the main story. A novel can have several subplots. They add richness and texture to the story and the characters.

The main plot in a mystery is the hunt for the killer. The subplots run along with it. The authors focus on the rather trite "false trail leading to a scapegoat" in their examples. In fact the Christie novel, Body in the Library, even has bumbling police following the false trail ;-) A false trail is undoubtedly a useful tactic for a first mystery: it builds in a false picture of what really happened.

But subplots, of course, can be any side stories that are going on during the course of the novel. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series seems to be 80% subplots that involve the main character's out of the office life. ;-) Usually, because it does often feel more satisfying to the reader, something from the main story has caused or has some effect on the subplot (like when her car gets blown up during an investigation and she has to borrow her grandfather's (?) car.) Sometimes vice versa, that is, she'll have to change her bounty hunting because of some crisis with her sister.

Guidelines for Using Subplot

1. Subplots come from back story.

In the author's example, there are several events in the background of various characters that get mined to create the subplot.

As a reader it often seems as though the author pictures the end of the story and that automatically creates all the characters, their backgrounds and their quirks necessary to reach it. It seems like a magic mysterious process. :-)

But from what the authors are showing, and what has happened to me during the novels created for National Novel Writing Month, the story gets shaped out of the random, quirky ideas that have no real meaning at the time they're written. The quirky ideas just pour out in the planning process (for the authors) or the writing process (for me ;-). Some quirky ideas that don't end up fitting with anything, get removed eventually from the story. Some that were minor initially, the author goes back and fleshes them out.

It's sort of like creating a patchwork quilt from randomly grabbed squares. Someone can look at the finished product and wonder how the artist knew those particular shades would work so well before she started. How did she come up with the idea to put those together? The truth is the idea came from what she had available to her.

So, as with quilts, subplots can come out of the random background material you've already generated.

2. Subplots come from character.

A subplot can come from a character that you find you like as you're writing or thinking about her. She gets fleshed out and the random ideas about her create a subplot which weaves into the main plot (and can often change the direction you had originally intended to head it in.)

3. Subplots come from objects.

A subplot can come from an object. The authors use the Maltese Falcon as an example. People have been questing for the statue of the bird for a long time. The bird draws those people together to continue their quest while the story takes place. They aren't part of the murder. They are, basically, distraction. But entertaining distraction :-)

4. Subplots come from theme.

Often it's been said that you don't know your theme until you've finished your first draft ;-) Which is just to say if you have no idea what your theme is, don't worry about it. It's pretty common not to see an overall message until the whole thing is done. (So then, for your second draft, you go back and strengthen the scenes that support the theme and lessen or cut out the parts that don't. It makes it *seem* like you knew from the beginning that you were writing about "The Death of Love" or "Man's inhumanity to man" ;-)

Anyway, the authors use "F is for Fugitive" as an example where Sue Grafton has interwoven three stories of "Lost Fathers" into the novel: the scapegoat's father, the father of the victim's unborn child and the victim's father.

It can be very satisfying when a theme inspired subplot also involves the detective. *But* it can also feel forced if it doesn't grow naturally from the character or you can see it coming from halfway through the book. It doesn't ring true if every mystery a detective solves involves some soul ripping revelation about herself ;-)

Novel work

1. Back story

Review what you did for Weekend 5: Backstory to find events, objects, and people that might work into subplots. The authors suggest that playing "What if" might help: What if a character gets another scene to tell more about himself? What would come out? How does the character change if she's wearing a tennis outfit, or a bathing suit, or prison dungarees? (The finished novel never shows all the playing around with possible ideas and directions the author has done in the creation process ;-)

2. Scene Cards

Use scene cards to track the course of your subplot through the structure of your novel. The authors suggest that if you have more than one subplot to use different colors for the cards. Name the subplots (as well as the scenes). Use colorful names that will evoke strong feelings and memories to help you.

3. Plot Picture

Redraw your plot picture diagram. Put the main scenes above the rising line. Put the subplots below. The authors suggest that in a 250-300 page mystery, a subplot needs half a dozen scenes.


Next week is The Working Synopsis.
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