Last week we discussed how to plot out the main story ARC. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out now by clicking here. Dramatic structure in successful novels don’t unfold in one single, grand ARC. Fiction is rich with story lines that lead readers down the road and around the bend and over the rainbow. This week we will be discussing subplot and secondary story ARCs and how they can enrich your story.
Plots entwine readers in the lives and adventures of characters they’ve just met and characters they know well. Good plots snare readers from page one. They make it impossible for readers to turn away, impossible to keep from following characters through the most troubling periods of their lives.
Impossible to put the books down. That’s where subplots make the difference
Several smaller sequences of rising and falling action within the larger story develop themes and secondary characters. If your book is part of a series, you’ll likely combine multiple arcs to sustain interest and tension within a larger, overarching plot arc.
Even if you’re not writing a series, creating smaller arcs within your main dramatic arc has multiple benefits. First, you’ll have other sources of tension and interest during your story where primary conflicts move to the background. These smaller ARCs help you develop your characters and central themes. Smaller arcs supply additional stake and add tension. For example, you can develop the secondary relationships for the characters that make the primary plot even more powerful.
Make Your Story’s Middle Fluctuate more to Sustain Interest
A common problem in many novice novels is a sagging middle of the story that loses momentum. Don’t cause your reader to wander off, never to return. Instead, create more drama in the middle that sustains your reader’s interest.
One of my favorite ways to shake up the middle is to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen here and then make it happen. That can often be done with a subplot.
What is a sub-plot?
A sub-plot is simply a secondary story line. It could be a love story in a mystery or suspense novel, a child’s death and its fallout or a business dilemma and its ramifications in any style of story, or even a health issue dealt with by one of the major characters.
A love story between secondary characters is a popular sub-plot in some contemporary romances.
Sub-plots are used to give depth to characters. They allow characters to have interests other than the singular one dealt with in the major plot. They are a way to reveal more of a character’s personality.
Sub-plots are also a way to distract characters from their stated course, a method for keeping them off balance when all their attention should be focused on the main problem.
Secondary plots are great for piling on problems. You want to make a character feel overwhelmed and overburdened? Add another problem through a sub-plot.
Think distraction, diversion, unbearable weight. Think of the character who’s already at the breaking point with one issue now having to face another heart-breaking or life-altering issue. Or maybe it’s not an issue that’s of major importance to him, but one that is important to someone he loves.
How does a character handle someone else’s life and death issue?
Adding an emotion-charged sub-plot works well to tie your characters in knots, change their way of thinking, push them into risks.
Look for a way to add not only a different level of problem, but a different type of problem.
Give a character a physical or emotional dilemma if the major plot line deals with a psychological problem. Attack your character’s family or his home, his health, his friends.
Challenge his dreams or career goals.
Twist the knife. Make him choose between fixing one problem and pursuing the other.
Beware the Subplot Take-over
However, never forget that your main plot should carry the story’s focus.
Don’t give your secondary plots more dynamic words or more dashing events than the main plot. Don’t give them more page space and emphasis. Don’t involve more characters in a side plot than the main one.
Don’t make a sub-plot’s climax and resolution more exciting than the one for your main story line.
Sub-plots don’t have to affect protagonist or antagonist directly. A sub-plot touches the main story, but it doesn’t always require direct action on the part of the main character or his antagonist.
Avoid Digression (Most of the Time)
Literary digression is a deliberate ploy of writers to steer story away from the main plot. One of its uses in the past was to add explanations or to allow the writer to delve into the history or purpose of some element they included in the story. Digression is the writer showing off his knowledge and what he learned while researching his book.
Digression definitely stops the forward motion of a story and reminds readers they are reading something that never happened. It pulls them out of the events you so carefully arranged and crafted to seem real.
However, digression can be used in a positive way. You can create little rabbit trails and small offshoots of the main story.
These digressions are not as fully integrated into the story as a sub-plot. Nor are they as complex. A good use of a digression might include a line or two of commentary.
However, like chocolate sprinkles, a little bit goes a long way. A digression can be added into the main story line with little notice by the reader. Little notice, that is, that the digression really has no true part in the unfolding plot.
Picture digressions not so much as plots or sub-plots but as author asides.
If you’re writing a mystery where you might want to mislead the reader, a digression—on the short term—can be good. On the long term can be a problem for the reader. A reader should never be aware that the author intruded with a digression. Digressions, if noticed, break down the wall between fiction and the real world.
Sub-plots must have a Purpose
They should have meaning for the story and the characters without becoming the major focus.
Sub-plots should, like every other element in story, work to advance the main plot, reveal character, and/or increase conflict. They can also stir reader emotion or affect tone.
They must work to advance the main plot.
Like main plots, sub-plots need beginning points, high moments, climaxes, and resolutions. They need their own ARC.
Don’t Leave a Sub-Plot Hanging
Don’t leave sub-plots dangling—unless you plan to complete them in another book. And if you do, make sure readers know that’s in the plan.
You might forget you’ve left a sub-plot without resolution, but your readers won’t. That’s why diagraming your sub-plots are as important as diagraming the main plot.
Subplots Must Enhance Your Story
Sub-plots can cure a flat story and keep the story full. It helps characters become multi-dimensional. (More about character development next week). Sub-plots can pile on the problems for the main character and can set up characters for a multi-book series. Sub-plots can also distract characters and readers so that they don’t catch on too quickly.
However, they can also distract from the main storyline and be more fascinating than the main story and take over. They can turn the reader’s focus to relatively unimportant events or characters.
They can also be unresolved and leave the readers dissatisfied. Sub-plots can also be too cliched and boring and dilute the impact of the main plot. A sub-plot might even pull the reader away from the fiction if the sub-plot doesn’t fit the main plot or the style or tone of the rest of the story.
Use sub-plots to create layers and depth to enhance your fiction and make your characters seem more real. By giving characters multiple plot lines, they will be more like the rest of us.
Modern fiction doesn’t make much use of true literary digression, but a momentary digression here or there might work for your stories. If, however, you intend to keep readers immersed in the fiction, stay away from digressions.
Write engrossing plots and use sub-plots to your benefit. Save your fascinating research for your blog or nonfiction article.
Though we started our editing process with the story line, the emphasis of your story may be character driven rather than plot driven, and next week we will be diving into getting to know our characters better.
Readers come for the characters, to see how they’ll overcome the obstacles of their lives. Or, viewed from the other side, they come for a plot that entertains, one that influences character behavior and thought. A story that changes a character’s life. As this process continues, you’ll have to determine (if you haven’t already) how you want your story driven. Next week we discuss developing our characters.
This week, flesh out and compare your subplots to your main plot. Do they enhance your main storyline or are they too much? Do they help improve what would be a saggy middle? Do they come to a satisfying end or do you leave the audience hanging? If you do leave it hanging, is it a set up for a sequel and how will you let the audience know? Are there any obvious digressions that need to be amended? How will you amend them?
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