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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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