Monday, November 12, 2012
Stay On Target: When is a Subplot Leading You Astray?
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?
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?