Subplots and Slow-Cooking Romance

On March 29, 2014, maybeawriter wrote, I noticed that I tend to rush through subplots. For example, in one story, I have my two MCs falling in love. They meet the first day, then they’re already friends with hints of romance by the end of the second. I know shared life-threatening experiences tend to help people bond quickly, but it seems somehow too fast to me. In the same story, I have a (fundamentally good) character who considers himself a super villain, and I think he abandons his life philosophy too quickly. I think both subplots need to be slowed down. Any thoughts on how to pace subplots so they don’t get rushed?

And Eliza responded: It isn’t unbelievable to fall in love after two days. Just to act on it. Hints are okay, things like MCs looking at each other for too long, going out of their way to help each other, and giving compliments. Readers pick up on hints. Just hold off on things like kissing for a while. The longer you hold off, the more readers will want them.

Let’s talk about subplots first, because I recently gained a new understanding in that area. I used to think that a subplot had to be an entirely separate side story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is full of this kind of subplot, set off when the fellowship splinters. Various characters leave Frodo and have complete adventures on their own. These subplots come together in the grand resolution of the ring, but they work themselves out in isolation.

Stolen Magic has this kind of subplot, but most of my books have a simpler kind. Let’s take Ella Enchanted as an example. The main plot is Ella’s quest to rid herself of the curse of obedience. Her experiences with ogres would be a subplot. So would her run-ins with Hattie. Her father’s romance, if we can call it that, with Dame Olga would be. Even her relationship with Char would be. Ella, as the POV MC, is there for all of them, but they’re still subplots, which braid together to make trouble for Ella and to finally contribute to the story’s resolution.

I agree with Eliza. I’m on board with quick-developing romantic feelings, because I think they often arise this way. Electricity sizzles between two people, and they like each other, too. They’re both their best selves when they’re together, at least on the first few occasions.

If our story is a romance and we want it to be longer than five pages, we do need to slow it down. What are the possibilities? Can we bring in subplots?

Complications can be external or internal or both. Let’s call maybeawriter’s romantic duo Ginnie and Max, and the guy with delusions of super villainy Warren. And let’s imagine that Ginny and Max enjoyed each other so much on their first meeting that they agree to a repeat the next day at the local historical museum, because they’re both history buffs. Here are a few external events that might intervene:

• Max’s mother is in a car accident. Things look dicey for her. Max is so involved, waiting in the emergency room with his dad and comforting his little sister, that he forgets the date. Ginny waits an hour for him with rising feelings of disappointment and anger.

• Ginny discovers when she gets home that her father wants her to go fishing with him the next day. He rarely has time to spend with her and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. She calls Max and gets his voice mail. She leaves a message and also texts him. He doesn’t get back to her because he left his cell phone on the bus on his way home. He waits for her for an hour the next day. He’s worried, rather than angry, because he realizes she may have left him a message, and he thinks something may have happened to her.

• One of them is in a car accident on the way to the museum.

• Stuart, an old friend of Ginny’s shows up unexpectedly. She reaches Max, and he suggests the friend come along. He does, and his presence throws off the chemistry between Ginny and Max. By the end of the day neither is sure there ever was a spark.

• Max is abducted by a ring of diamond smugglers, or he’s carried off by a hungry dragon.

• Ginny falls, strikes her head, and has amnesia.

See if you can add three (or more!) more external interrupters to my list.

For internal forces we have to make decisions about these two. There are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

• Max is thorough. When he gets home he googles Ginny. He finds her Facebook page, where he learns about her hobbies, sees her friends. Thinking he’s just expressing interest, the next time he sees her he quizzes her on what he saw. She feels spied on.

• Ginny is enthusiastic. When she gets home she texts Max to say what a great time she had and how she told her girlfriend what a great guy he is. Max is reserved and not sure he likes being discussed with Ginny’s friends.

• Max tells his friend Jay about liking Ginny. Jay knows Ginny and opines that Max can do better. Ginny isn’t cool enough for him. Max, who cares far too much about the opinions of others, feels ashamed of his feelings for Ginny. His hesitation shows the next time they meet.

• Ginny doesn’t trust her luck. She can’t believe how nice Max is, and she worries that he’s going to stop liking her, because great things just don’t happen to her. She works herself into such a state that she cancels the date, not wanting to be there when he loses interest.

There. Your turn to write down three or more internal obstacles.

Note that these delaying elements can give rise to subplots. For example, we can develop subplots involving the families of Max and Ginny. Likewise, one about a ring of diamond smugglers. Or a hungry dragon! On the internal side, the relationship with Jay can be a subplot. Or Ginny’s easily discouraged state of mind can be.

As for Warren, the character who misguidedly believes himself to be a super villain, I’d suggest some scenes that confirm his idea of himself and some that confound it. A friend can try to prove to him that he’s a decent person but he refutes the arguments, bolstering his opinion of himself. Another friend, who actually is evil, can act badly, and Warren finds himself angry with her. His friend Ginny can beg him for advice about her relationship with Max, and he tells her he’s too busy to help. After she leaves he feels awful, but he tells himself that he doesn’t have time for such a trivial thing as love. Then he goes to a store for equipment he needs for his YouTube filming, which will prove his badness. On the way, he’s the only witness to the car accident involving Max’s mom. He calls 911 and stays with her until the ambulance comes. Then he hurries off to complete his purchase, ignoring his contradictory actions.

Ginny can be a subplot in his story. So can the car accident and its aftermath. Also the other friend who tries to reason with him. And let’s not leave out the YouTube performance and what comes of it.

This post is full of prompts:

• Write a story about Ginny and Max. Try several of my suggestions and your own for slowing down the momentum of their romance.

• Write a story about the confused non-super villain Warren. Write the scene in which he makes his YouTube video. Write the scene of the car accident and the scene with Ginny.

• Write a story or novel that combines Warren’s confusion about himself with the romance between Ginny and Max.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. First off, oh my gosh, thanks so, so much for answering my question. Heehee, I always get starstruck when this happens! 😀
    The funniest thing is that 'Warren' was actually the Dreamworks character Megamind, as my story was part original action adventure and part Megamind fan fiction. (It was NaNoWriMo; I picked whatever I could squeeze the most words out of.) And all those things would be, in my mind, beautifully in-character for him.
    I suppose the only obstacle is finding times and places for the subplots to develop in an action-oriented story. Of course, it wasn't nonstop action so I mostly worked these things in during the breaks.

    This post is extremely helpful, not just for these two examples, but all subplots that need time to develop. For instance, Max's character development. He starts out incredibly timid, but hanging around much braver Ginny and facing these problems together brings out his more heroic side. I was worried that he transitioned too fast, so now I'm thinking about inserting more moments where he relapses into cowardice along the way.
    (Ugh, long post. Sorry if I rambled.)

  2. From the website:

    I'm having problems with my MC. I feel as though she isn't very developed. How do I get around to do this? Maybe it's because I don't think that she has a great humor, and for me who has an amazing one (humor), it is a bit annoying. What do I do? How can I fix this?
    Thanks so much,
    Writer At Heart

  3. Why doesn't she have a sense of humor? Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded? The reason might give you clues to her personality.

    Is she in a situation where humor['s important? Why? How does she respond? What problems does this cause for her?

    • From the website:

      No, she's not overly serious or any of that other stuff you said. Like, she can be awkward at times or serious, it really just me. I can say a joke pretty well, but I just can't write it down on paper or on the computer. She's actually very out going. I just can't do it.
      Well, yes and no. Humor, in my opinion, is a very important subject of matter in books. I don't want my book to be humorless, because, in books like these, I feel as though there isn't a lot of laughter (a.k.a. a good but not the best book).
      I guess you could say that it's not only my MC who I want to be funny, but my MC's 'boyfriend.' I want him to be very funny, someone who can make a girl laugh.
      I don't know if this answers your question or doesn't make any sense. Please tell me if so! Writer At Heart

  4. Hi, guys!
    I have a problem, and if anybody has any suggestions, that would be great.

    In my story, Wonderland has been taken over. I want to show that this last is a bad ruler and needs to be overthrown, but I'm having trouble thinking of ways to do this. Plus, although she's a terrible monarch and Wonderland's suffering from her leadership, I still want to have Wonderland be a place of…wonder. 🙂 It's kind of hard to balance out.

    So, if any of you have any ideas and would like to share, that would be fantastic! Thank you!

  5. Bug, is she a tyrannical monarch? Or is she more like Queen Ivi from FAIREST? Perhaps she deemed that all the "Happiness trees" (magical trees that develop blossoms that have pollen to make everyone who inhales it happy) should be destroyed because she has pollen allergies, or some such trivial thing, like Queen Ivi banished the birds from her castle when she had an accident with one. That way you still have wonder when the reader reads about these magical trees and the cruelty to the people and the land when she annihilates them. This idea is more Ivi-like than tyrannical, but I hope it helps!

  6. Thank you! She's kind of both Ivy-ish and tyrannical, so she does petty things and downright wrong things, if that makes sense. Thanks again!

  7. Hi all,
    So, I've self-published two books as part of a series (my friends and family are the only ones who really read them though). Well, now I'm working on the third book in the series, and, while I like my ideas for it, I just can't seem to write them. It's like when you try a new recipe, follow all the instructions, and know it should work, but it just doesn't. Usually, I write really quickly, like NaNoWriMo quickly, but somehow I can only write a few words at a time on this. Basically, does anyone have ideas for how I can get back on track and back into the story?

    • Are you excited about your plot? Do your characters interest you? Maybe you have too MANY ideas. Often if I plan out my plot too well I get bored, knowing what's coming and what I'll be writing. Blah, blah, blah. So try simply writing. Don't think about your ideas other than the bare minimum. Just use your imagination. Create completely crazy events or characters. Do whatever you feel like doing. Even if you don't use it in your story, it will get you going. Hey, you might even use some of your crazy ideas. It will make you imagine all the possibilities more fully.
      I don't know if I'm missing something or not, but I hope this helps!

  8. This came in from Sydney on the website:

    So, I'm struggling with a story I'm writing, and I was hoping you would have some advice. I have a couple of problems, and any input you may have would be greatly appreciated.
    So, I really like my story idea. It's been bubbling around in the back of my brain for over a year, but it has some inherent problems, and I just can't get it out onto paper.
    The idea came from me thinking about fairy godmothers…Cinderella's in particular. In the original story, she doesn't really have a character arc. She's just inserted in as a sort of dues ex machina to solve Cinderella's problems. So, how did she become a fairy godmother? Why does she help Cinderella? What does she do when she isn't fixing other people's problems? What's her story?
    So the idea is that my character is a fairy godmother. She is forced by a curse (either from birth or because she made the choice) to always be self-sacrificing. Essentially, she can make anyone's wishes come true except for her own.
    My problem is…if she can't make her own wishes come true, how does she work towards her story goal? I don't want a character who can only sit around and be rescued. And does that mean she can't fulfill basic needs like eating and drinking? I'm confused by my own premise!

    I (Gail) wrote this, but I hope you have more ideas: Sounds interesting and tricky! I'm not sure what I'd do, but I do think she should have a particular wish for herself: to save her life, to find love, whatever.

    • I like the idea too! It reminds me a tad of Ella Enchanted. [SPOILER ALERT] Even though she was cursed to always be obedient, she eventually found a way to break the curse. Forgive me, I haven't read it in a long time, so I don't remember exactly how she did it… But it just goes to show that an MC *can* overcome a curse. [SPOILERS DONE]
      Maybe she could work around her curse a little, by putting herself in situations where she *has* to help a certain someone whose wish could benefit her as well. Just tossing some ideas out there!

    • Ah, those are good! Thanks guys. I especially like Michelle's suggestion about her controlling who she helps.
      I never really thought about it sounding like Ella Enchanted – I can see that now. I wasn't originally going to have her be cursed. My first idea was that fairies are born into "classes" of sorts – sort of like the caste system in India. So the "Godmothers" would be the ones who helped humans, whether they wanted to or not, and there would be strict laws about what they could and couldn't do. But essentially, they had to be extremely self-sacrificing, and anything they might do that was considered "selfish" or "self-serving" would be seriously frowned-upon or even illegal. And then I could explore some of the themes related to that.
      Maybe that original idea is the one to go with? I abandoned it early on because I thought it was pretty thematically difficult, and maybe too much to deal with in one book. What do you all think?

    • Thank you, carpelibris! I've never heard of those – I may have to check them out.
      So maybe the key would be to make it difficult (socially and "morally") for her to work towards her goal, but not physically impossible. That would at least get me writing, and then I can see what happens from there. Does anyone else have any thoughts or ideas for either of these ideas? And which one do you find more interesting in as a reader?

  9. I have a question. How do you decide how many characters to include in your story? I've read some books where there is a large group of main characters with complicated arcs, and it gets really cluttered really fast. On the other hand, there are books with a lot of characters that work (Harry Potter comes to mind). My story idea involves a group of representatives from six different clans, and I'm struggling to keep from having too many characters. Right now my main idea is to usually have them in groups so that there are only three or four interacting at a time. Any other ideas? Thank you.

    • I don't think there's any rule about how many characters you can have – just as many as you and the reader can keep up with. This would be a good time to work with others and ask for critiques and opinions, and see if your reader can keep up. But don't cut characters just because you're afraid of the number.
      You can also use "hints" to help readers keep the characters straight, especially since you have six different clans. For instance, maybe all the people from Clan 1 overuse a certain phrase, word, or interjection, like "Aha". Then, whenever a character says "Aha", the reader automatically knows that he's a member of Clan 1. And maybe the people in Clan 2 speak with a cockney influence. And the people in Clan 3 all have names like Vyvyen, Lyssa, Grym, Mytch, and so on. That will help your reader keep them straight, and allow you to increase your cast of characters without having to worry that your reader will forget how they're connected. 🙂 I hope that helps!

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