Friday, January 15

5 Ways to Tell if a Subplot is Leading You Astray

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's refresher Friday takes an updated look at subplots, and if they're distracting you from the real story. Enjoy!

Subplots have a way of taking over some stories. They steal all the action, distract the protagonist, or in the worst cases, shine brighter than the actual plot. Good subplots enhance the story, support the theme, and brighten what's already there. A bad subplot tries to smother it in its sleep with a pillow.

The annoying part is, we can't always tell which is which.

Some of the best-looking subplots I ever had were the literary equivalent of will-o-the-wisps. Bright, shiny, heading off with purpose. It wasn't until I was deep in the weeds that I realized I'd been led astray.

However, there have been just as many times that bright light led me to a brighter subplot. Probably more good surprises than bad, really.

How can we tell if a subplot is helping or hurting?

1. Will this scene or subplot really make the story better, or just bigger?

If all it does is delay the time your protagonist completes her goal, it might not be a worthy subplot. It should affect something in the story, plot, or character arcs, otherwise it's just "stuff" the protagonist has to slog through to get anywhere.

(Here's more on making your novel deeper, not just bigger)

2. If you took the subplot out, what's lost? 

Consider how the story unfolds without this subplot. What's lost? What's gained? Does it change the way readers see the story? Does it change the way the characters see the problem? If the protagonist or another major character isn't changed by not going through this experience, you probably don't need it.

(Here's more on getting to the heart of the story)

3. Does it explore a new problem (and likely raise the stakes) or repeat a similar scene or idea you've already done?

If you're going off on a subplot tangent, that tangent should lead somewhere new and make things matter more. At the resolution of this subplot, will things be worse off than they were before, either internally or externally? Be wary if this subplot only shows yet another way the protagonist's life is threatened, or has the same stakes you've already established.

(Here's more on crafting subplots)

4. Does it require more attention (and words) than the main plot?

Often we start to question a subplot because it feels like it's hijacking the story. If you feel you've spent too much time on it, determine how much more you'll need to wrap it up. If you know it's going to take another nine chapters of your 27 chapter novel, and drag you further away from your core conflict, that's a big red flag this might not be the best subplot (or that you have the wrong main plot, but that's a different post).

5. Is the subplot compelling enough that readers won't mind the delay in getting back to the main goal, or will they feel like you're dragging your feet just to "keep making things worse?"

If readers don't care about this subplot, they'll get bored and start skimming, wondering when you'll get back to the real story. make sure any side stories are just as intriguing as the main plotline, and offer a compelling story questions to keep readers invested in the novel.

(Here's more on adding conflict to keep readers hooked)

Sometimes a subplot leads us to a wonderful place we never would have found otherwise, but it can also lead us off to die alone in the woods. As long as we pay attention to the path we're on and where we're going, we'll be better equipped to tell the difference.

Has a subplot ever lead you astray? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

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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  1. These are such excellent points you make, and completely true, sometimes it's nice to run off and have some fun just for the adventure but not in the long run, at least you know the proper questions to ask! Thanks for them!

  2. Hm. Good thoughts. I'm the write-short-and-fluff-later type, too. My epic fantasy WiP started out 17k words, and now it's over four times that. And that's after cutting an entire section that I realized didn't add anything. More may end up cut.

    I'll be asking myself those questions you list as I revise. I've realized my narrator in the urban fantasy WiP blacks out multiple times, and I've been wondering how much of it is actually necessary. It isn't a long novel. Does the MMC really need to knock her out three times? She passes out from pain once, and one time she accidentally knocks herself out. And I may be forgetting a blackout or two in there. I don't want to be using them as an 'easy' plot device.

    Thanks for the tips!

  3. That's why editing is so important. As writers, it's great to follow our characters around a bit, but I've read several books where there was just more and more stuff. Unless the MC is learning something really important, I tend to get bored and flip ahead. There's nothing worse than getting to the end of the book and knowing the author could've saved me an hour of reading if they'd just stayed on target!

  4. "I tend to write short. I'm a sparse first-drafter and then I flesh out, rather than write everything and cut back."

    Whoa! You just completely reinvented my writing style. That's exactly how I'm meant to write! That's how I've always written everything except fiction! Ahh!
    I kept trying to write more in first drafts than I really wanted to because I thought that's how I was supposed to write, or some other silly idea like that. Wow. Just--thank you.


  5. Glad I could help! Flannery, there's nothing you're "supposed" to do with writing but find the way that works for you. If you put ten writers in a room, you'll get ten different answers about their process.

  6. Such good advice, Janice. Thank you. I admit I allow some subplots, like a cool breakout character, to be the "shiny new thing" that distracts me, especially if the main plot needs work. Because that's usually the case for me--the main plot isn't big enough.

  7. Great points to keep in mind, especially since I love subplots.

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  9. Lin, if that's how you work, there's nothing wrong with it. Maybe you need those shiny subplots to help you deepen the novel as a whole :)

    Ella, lots of fun to be had there :)

  10. Wow! You always seem to post about something I'm currently dealing with. Thanks for your post and your apparent psychic writing advice.

  11. I recently listened to YA Author, Angela Morrison, give a presentation on plot, with Writing For Children Live. She helped me with the sub-plot/plot issue and your post here backs up what she said as well. One of her helpful hints was to read Christopher Vogler's book called The Writer's Journey, which tells from a screenwriter point of view how to plot. I'm reading it now and it is very specific - which is something I thrive on - detail!!!

  12. Amy, cool! I have gnomes who work for me. Psychic gnomes :)

    Kim, The Writer's Journey is a cornerstone for plotting and story crafting. Another good one is Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat." It's screenwriting, but it follows the same basic structure but adds a few more anchor points (beats) that really help with plotting. Michael Hague also has some amazing structures as well, and I think he has a book out there. Bickham's "Scene and Structure" is another must have.

  13. I know this topic from both the angle of the reader and the writer. I've read books that took me off somewhere I didn't want to be, and, yes, I started skimming. I was also recently working on a manuscript and realized I'd gone way off somewhere. I stopped and fixed it. Great article.

  14. Suzanne, thanks! A great example of why reading is so valuable to us writers. I know I always wonder "Am I doing that?" when I see something that yanks me out of a story.

  15. Im so green I still don't know what a subplot is exactly ...