The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.


Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Twisting, Turning Way

I have two events coming up post-tour! Next Saturday, May 9th, I’ll be at Byrd’s Books, 126 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, Connecticut, at 11:00 am. And the following Sunday, May 17th, I’ll be participating in the South Carolina Book Festival at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center located
at 1101 Lincoln Street. I’ll be speaking there from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm and then signing books. Hope to see some of you at one of these events!

If you don’t already know, Stolen Magic came out on April 21st, and I just finished my tour. I met a few of you, and I’m so glad I did!

On December 27, 2014, Elisa wrote, How does one make intricate little side-plots? To add interest and mystery to a story what must one do? I have one story that I’ve written quite a bit in and I know just about everything that is gonna happen, etc., but it is kinda boring me because there is one and only one plot that plods on and on, no interesting little side-plots to add color and depth, just a very simple, straight forward story that goes neither to the left nor the right. How do I fix this? I’ve tried to add more action to the Main Plot (which is, essentially the ONLY plot) but it just adds weight and burden, not necessarily interest. I’m bored at the one-wayness of the story. Any ideas for fixing this?

I tend to have the opposite problem: I over-complicate. So maybe we can find a place in the middle.

Sometimes when stories are hurtling along a single track, the track is single because we haven’t slowed down enough for side tracks to appear. Let’s take the fairy tale “Snow White.” Not much complexity there. The plot mostly revolves around the evil queen, and Snow White herself is just a pretty doll of a character who’s acted upon by others, again mostly the queen.

If we don’t slow down, nothing is very interesting. The queen is motivated by jealousy, the hunter by pity. The dwarfs take her in because she can clean and cook. The prince is love-struck by Snow White’s seemingly lifeless beauty.

Let’s pretend I never wrote Fairest and look at the story fresh.

We can pick any of the characters for the slowing down, so let’s start with the prince and make him our MC. Why is he traveling through those woods? Is he looking for the dwarfs? For something else? Is he on the run? Does he have a sweetheart at home?

More slowing down. We go back to the moment of his departure from his parents’ castle. What sort of family does he leave? Who says goodbye to him? With what feelings does he depart?

What happens on his way to the dwarfs? Does he encounter anyone? Does he run into trouble? Is he bringing trouble with him, or behind him? Are the dwarfs and Snow White in danger because of him?

I’ve never bought it that he falls in love with a dead body, or what he thinks is a dead body. So what is it about the apparent corpse that appeals to him? There’s lots of room for complexity here.

Then, when she wakes up, what happens? Are they really instantly in love?

In the fairy tale, they invite the evil queen to their wedding. We can explore the gaps there. She has to be dealt with, because what’s to stop her from attacking Snow White again? In the fairy tale she goes to the wedding. Why? She could decline the invitation. The mirror has told her that the new queen is more beautiful than she is. Won’t she be dangerous if she shows up? If she doesn’t come, she’s out there being evil. If we slow her part down, we can introduce all these considerations and make complicated things happen based on them.

Let’s move on to another character, the hunter, who risks his life for Snow White. That’s extreme kindness. When I’m kind to someone, if it’s more than a quick thing, I become involved. I want to know what happened. Is the hunter going to just let Snow White go, or is he going to interest himself in her future? If we want to complicate our story, we may decide to answer yes and give him a bigger, slower role.

Snow White’s father doesn’t come into the fairy tale in any significant way, but we can bring him in. Does he know what his wife is up to? What’s his relationship with his daughter? Does he know she’s left the castle? What does he want? What’s going on with his kingdom and affairs of state? How’s his health? We keep asking ourselves questions and consider possible answers, looking for threads we can weave into our story.

This is fun!

And the dwarfs can add more complexity. Are they all glad Snow White is living with them? Do they all like her cooking, for example? Do they all like her? Have any of the dwarfs fallen in love with her? Do they get along with each other? What do they think of the queen? Might one of them be in league with her? What do they think of the prince when he comes along? Do they all think she should marry him?

What about Snow White herself? What does she want? What are her hopes for herself? What was her relationship with the evil queen before the mirror declared her more beautiful? What’s her relationship with her father? With the hunter? Did she know him before he took her into the forest? What does she think of the dwarfs? Does she like them all? Does she like living with them? Is she trying to figure out where else she could go? Or does she want to spend her life in their cottage? I’ve never understood why she lets the evil queen in, even the first time. So why does she do it?

We can keep in mind that our story doesn’t have to end where the fairy tale does. It can go into the future, or we can tell just a fragment of the story that we’ve expanded into a multi-faceted epic.

We can develop plenty of intricacy with just one POV, but if we want still more, we can try multiples or omniscient third person. The hunter and a dwarf, for example, can have their own POVs.

The key to subplots is our characters and their conflicting desires and circumstances. We discover these when we slow our action down, enter our characters’ hearts and minds, and get into the details.

Here are a bunch of prompts:

• Pick out five to ten–or all!–of my questions about the characters in Snow White and write a paragraph or two about what you might do with them.

• Write two more questions about each character. Explore them in a few paragraphs of notes.

• Write an argument between two dwarfs over Snow White. If you like, she can overhear it.

• Write a scene that causes the prince to leave home. Could be an argument, a quest he takes on, whatever.

• From the hunter’s POV, write the scene that follows the moment he lets Snow White go in the forest.

• Write a scene between Snow White and her father.

• Write the whole story!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Plots and subplots

On October 5, 2014, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m on the fifth draft of my novel (oh the joy of calling my work a novel!) and I think I’ve lost my way. Originally the story was simple–boy likes girl, boy writes anonymous letters to girl, girl gets in trouble because of boy, girl hates boy, boy saves girl. Okay, so maybe not that simple, but now it’s really complicated. There are multiple perspectives, half a dozen more important characters, and another subplot. With all this extra stuff, the stuff that made up my first draft now only takes up a quarter of the novel. Part of me thinks that all the extra characters, subplots, points-of-view, and stuff should all go, but the other part of me really really really likes all the characters I’ve added. 

So do I cut out all the stuff in an attempt to recapture the original magic of my story? Or do I leave it all in and re-write the story from scratch for the third time and embrace the new magic of my story? Any suggestions?

Most stories follow one or two MCs, who have goals, who face problems, who overcome for a happy ending or fail for a tragic one. But exceptions abound. An example that leaps to mind is the novel (high school and above, I think) Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read decades ago, and which follows multiple characters. The problem of the story, the founding of Israel, doesn’t belong to just one or two MCs, but the struggle unites the narrative.

So that’s one way, a connecting thread. If we look over our story with its octopus tentacles of plot and POV, can we find or devise a problem that unifies everything? Suppose that overarching issue is the romance, and let’s call unsocialized homeschooler’s boy Rafe, and girl Stella. Our other POV characters are Stella’s sister, Pauline; Rafe’s best friend, Tom; Stella’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar; the principal of their high school, Ms. Quincy; and–oh, let’s mix it up–Mellie, Rafe’s cat, who, unbeknownst to everyone, has recently achieved human intelligence due to a freak accident with lightning one night when she got out of the house to go prowling.

Since our unifying problem is the romance, each character has to be invested in its success or failure. Let’s say Mellie, who used to have a happy social life with other cats, now finds her former friends dull. She’s miserable and wants to spread it around, so she’s trying to sabotage the romance. The reader is interested in how she goes about this, and also in whether or not she’s going to remain super-intelligent and whether Rafe is going to figure out her transformation.

Say Oscar, Stella’s ex, wants the relationship to succeed. He’s mad at Stella for their break-up and he thinks (rightly or wrongly) that she and Rafe will be wretched together. He’s moved on, but his new relationship is troubled. If he gets to a better place, he may be kinder to Stella, so the reader is caught up in his story, too.

You get the idea. The lives of these other characters work because of the bearing they have on the main event, and also because we’ve, naturally, made their personalities and their stories compelling.

Now I’m thinking of the novel, Hawaii by James Michener (again, high school and up), another book that I read as a young adult. It proceeds chronologically and tells the story of the islands, starting with the geological events that created them. The six sections are separated by time gaps. One is about the Chinese immigration, another about the influx from Japan, and I don’t remember what else. Each part, as I recall, is long enough to be a novella and to be satisfying, and each stands alone. I don’t think characters appear in more time period.

So that’s another approach, a chronological ordering. We can start our story in the past. Rafe and Stella can be the patriarch and matriarch, from whom everyone else descends. Their romance can be successful, but there’s a problem that succeeding generations have to work out.

A third way might be through theme. Now I’m thinking about Little Women. The MCs are sisters, which makes their coexistence in a story natural, but each has her own narrative arc. One chapter belongs to one, another to another.  They come together in the theme, which is growing up.

Love can be our theme in this example. The cat Mellie may find a turtle who was similarly storm-struck and whose intelligence was also enhanced. The two bond, and the reader experiences inter-species affection. Ms. Quincy becomes increasingly engaged with her job. She embraces the challenge of running a successful school (falling in love with her work). Oscar could be the failure. His new relationship founders, and his subplot is of love gone awry.

Writing in third-person can provide unity of voice, too. All of the books I mentioned are in third-person, but I don’t think that’s a necessity. Variety is fun for the reader, in my opinion.

Going in a different direction, however, we can decide that some of our subplots, new characters, and POVs deserve their own stories. We can split them off and give them their day in the sun. If we do, we may be able to be more expansive with them and not have to cram their problems into a story that belongs primarily to others (Rafe and Stella).

I’m painfully aware that I sometimes over-complicate my plots, and the result is that the tension flags. Then I have to slash and burn to get things rocketing along again. Many of us may struggle with this.If this is happening in your story or in unsocialized homeschooler’s, simplifying may be the only answer.

To go back to unsocialized homeschooler’s question: I can’t say whether she should cut back, embark on draft number six, or find some middle. Here on this blog we don’t mind writing again and again to get it right. The point is to create a sense of continuity.

Here are four prompts:

• Little Women is old enough to be in the public domain, which means you can fool around with it and not worry about copyright infringement. It’s possible that there’s more to Jo’s story than Louisa May Alcott was able to cram in with all the demands of the other sisters. Write a story about Jo that isn’t in the book. You can even make her an only child if you like. Then go on and write separate stories about each sister. You can also write one about Laurie. If you’re inspired, each one can be a novel, and the result can be a series.

• Write a story about Rafe and Stella and the others with the overarching problem being their romance. Add or subtract characters at will. Try it in third person and then in first from more than one POV.

• Write a story about them using the chronological approach. Rafe and Stella are the founders of the family, and they set up a mystery that succeeding generations have to resolve. Each secondary character can be the MC of a generation, or two of them can exist at the same time. Don’t forget Mellie the cat!

• Treat these characters thematically. Their stories are united by a common theme, which can be love or anything else.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!