Monday, November 12

Stay On Target: When is a Subplot Leading You Astray?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, brighten what's already there. A bad subplot tries to smother it in its sleep with a pillow.

And the annoying part is, sometimes you just don't know 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 than bad. How can you tell is a subplot is helping or hurting?

Ask yourself:

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.

2. Does it raise the stakes or just do something similar to what you've already done?

If you're going off on a tangent, that tangent should lead somewhere new. Pinpoint exactly what you gain by this diversion. By the end, will the reader should understand something they didn't before. Things should be worse than they were before, either internally or externally.

3. Does it require more of what I've been doing the last few chapters?

Often we start to question a subplot because it feels like it's hijacking the story. If you already feel you've spent too much time on it, look to see how much more you're going to 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)

4. Is there enough draw 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 the reader doesn't care about this subplot, they'll get bored and start skimming. You don't want to make the reader impatient, wondering when you'll get to the point. If they start asking "why is this here?" you'll probably lose them. Ask it first.

Sometimes going off target leads us to a wonderful place we never would have found otherwise, but sometimes, it just leads 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 know the difference.

Has a subplot ever lead you astray?


  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.