One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from my agent:
"Don't go wider, go deeper."When we're working on a story, it's easy to add more "stuff" to make it exciting. More subplots, more characters, more details. We start off with a story about a guy trying to survive a zombie attack who finds love, and end up with a guy trying to survive an zombie attack, win the heart of his true love, find a cure for zombification, uncover the truth that the government was behind it all along, a woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her, that her company is the one responsible for the plague getting out, how dodging responsibility had always been an issue for her ever since she quit her job at the CDC, which in turn caused her parents to disown her because they always wanted her to be a doctor, a girl who gets thrust into the middle of it all and is trying desperately to find herself after her lover abandoned her to save a total stranger, dealing with the secret that she once had an affair with the man who created the zombie virus, and gave their love child up for adoption, all while exploring the deeper themes about what it means to be human in an ever-increasing world of anonymity.
Um...what was the story about again?
Any combination of just a few of those elements is enough for a book--a solid external problem, a compelling internal conflict, and a greater theme. But when you try to put everything into one book, nothing is developed enough to really grab a reader. Quite often, it's just more of the same stuff repackaged for another character.
There's Bob finding out there's a secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong. And there's Sally, learning her company was involved in a secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong. And because we need to tie all the subplots together, there's Jane finding out her lover was working for the government agency who sponsored the secret conspiracy to regenerate living tissue and it turned horribly, horribly wrong.
Do we need all this? Probably not. It feels like a lot is going on because three people are finding out something shocking in three separate plot lines, but as far as the reader is concerned, it's the same story revelation being told three different ways. They're ready to move on and learn something new.
How do you know if you're diving deep or splashing around in the shallows?
1. If you cut a subplot, would it change how your protagonist resolved the problem in the end?
Look at the core conflict. This is what your book is ultimately about--the big bad driving your story. This is the problem that readers want to see resolved to their satisfaction. Now look at your subplots. There's a good chance these are solid in their own right. They follow interesting characters and create tension and do all the things they're supposed to do. That's what makes them hard to cut. But do they all relate to and advance/enhance/reveal more about this core conflict in some way?
An unnecessary subplot won't affect the resolution, because it won't tie into the core conflict. If the protagonist never learned about that subplot, or met the character who has the subplot problem, things would have turned out basically the same.
(Here's more on when a subplot might be leading you stray)
2. If you cut a character, would it change how your protagonist resolved the problem in the end?
I'm as guilty of this as the next writer. We're writing along, trying to think up fun and dastardly things to do to our protagonists, and we keep introducing characters that work with that one specific event or issue and then are gone, off to do their own thing. If you have a character that's there for the sole purpose of being a problem in one small plot point, but they have their own subplot with lots of problems as well, there's a good chance you don't need them.
(Here's more on determining if your novel has too many characters)
3. Is your protagonist trying to do too much?
This one's a toughy. How much is too much? A good plot needs subplots to add depth and complications to the story, but add too many and your reader loses focus and doesn't know what the story is about anymore. Asking question #1 again can help determine if this extra problem for your protagonist is needed or not. You can also double check what a problem is accomplishing for your protagonist. What do they learn or gain from solving this mini problem (this might relate to their inner conflict or character arc), and how does it help them solve (or make it harder to solve) the core conflict? If it doesn't do either, consider cutting it.
(Here's more on over plotting your novel)
A secondary bonus to these questions is when you have a huge word count and you're looking for ways to trim the novel down. Weeding out unnecessary subplots can cut chunks out and tighten up a novel.
Where do you fall on the plot scale? Do your drafts usually have too much, too little, or a plot that's just right?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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