Sub-plot, or The Other Thing

The other night, my husband and I watched an episode of Scorpion, which I’d only see bits and pieces of before and ended up thoroughly enjoying.  The show is about a band of misfit computer experts led by Katherine McPhee, who is their interface and explainer of the real world.  In this episode, a helicopter carrying a doctor had crashed into a parking garage in high winds.  The helicopter was stable, as were its passengers, but the doctor had to be extracted immediately because she was the only doctor who could perform a certain kind of surgery and she had a dying patient awaiting her. (Hence why she was being flown in.) So the gang had to figure out how to perform a very risk rescue.

It was all very exciting, but what struck me was how the writers made great use of sub-plots. One involved the meteorological expert’s budding ardor for a chemist who works nearby and also the trials of a couple who were dealing with infertility. (I know, I know, sounds like a lot to pack into one episode, but it worked.) The sub-plots gave what otherwise could have been a routine action show a good dose of human pathos, especially because of the way the writers worked them in around the ongoing drama.

And that made me ponder sub-plots. When I first started writing fiction back when we all lived in caves, I was intimidated by sub-plots.  They sounded complicated and complex to try to fit in.  I mean, it is hard enough to figure out one plot from start to finish, right? And then you’re supposed to add in others? And make them relate to the main plot?

But then I realized that I was over-thinking the whole sub-plot thing.  They can be as simple as a few brief mentions of a minor character’s arc or some silly joke that carries through the plot.

You can think of them as, simply, another thing.  A thing that will take the pressure off your main character and your main story, thus giving it, your readers, and you, some time to breathe.  Often a story feels a little bare until you add in this other thing.

Ways to add in more things

Add another aspect to your main character.

Think, for example, of your own life.  You wear many hats, right? You’re a writer, but you’re also perhaps a parent or an aunt or an uncle, a friend, and likely you work at some kind of job. Then there are your hobbies and activities–maybe you run every day after work, or spend the evening in front of the TV knitting. Or perhaps you bake amazing sweets.  Or raise turtles. Or like to flip houses.

But if you were writing yourself as a character and focused solely on one of those things, the story would soon get a little stale. What if we only saw your character watching TV? Or running? Or tending the turtles?  That would not be a developed picture of you at all.  And that’s one way to add a sub-plot: add another element to the character.  I remember one from a novel that I read long ago in which the main character was constipated the entire novel. At one point, he finally was able to go. I know, I know. But it could be thought of as another thing.

Add a love interest.

Boo-yah.  Done and done.  If you’re writing a mystery or thriller or literary fiction, a love interest adds a human element readers love.

Create a habit for your character.

This can be either one she is trying to acquire or one she is trying to break. As a running line throughout the story, it can add depth and maybe even some humor.

Use a minor character for a sub-plot.

In my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, I gave her assistant an arc that became a sub-plot. She started out completely against romance and ended up madly in love.

Give your character something to master.

Maybe your character takes up jewelry-making to find a way to relax from the stress of her job.   Or decides to plant a garden.  Showing a character mastering something new is satisfying for the reader.

Give your character a hobby.

I love to knit. While most of the time I do this at home, I also attend knit nights at local knitting stores and the monthly meeting of my knitting guild.  Something like this gives your character more dimension and also gives you more fodder for the plot.

How to use sub-plots

  • Only add in one or two! Too many will overload your story.
  • Remember that sub-plots will be introduced and completed before the start and finish of your story.  Save the beginning and end for the main plot
  • Sub-plots are very handy for pacing. You can have one sub-plot hanging out there, then introduce another one and meanwhile be moving along the main elements of the plot.  Open plot lines are a great way to keep the reader interested.
  • Keep your sub-plots organic to the story. Does it feel forced? Don’t use it. For instance, it is probably not going to feel natural for a business executive living in Manhattan to start raising chickens.
  • Similar to above, be sure to find a way to connect or relate your sub-plot to the story.

How do you use sub-plots in your stories? Do any of these ideas resonate? Leave a comment–or come over to the Facebook page to share.

 

Link Round-up: Writing the Novel

While I'm teaching writing in Europe, I'm mining my eight years of articles on writing for you.  Once a week I'm posting a link round-up on a certain subject.  I'll also re-post an oldie but goodie in full on a different day. And I've got a couple of new posts scheduled for you as well. 

Today's topic is writing the novel.  Scroll down for tons of links!

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Not sure what exactly is going on in this photo besides the writing. Are you?

 

Starting & Prep

 

Finding the First Line of Your Novel

A Novel-Writing Vision Board

Tips on Writing: Prepping For the Novel, Part One: Tools

Tips on Writing: Prepping For the Novel, Part Two–The Ideas and the Process

Tips on Writing: Prepping For the Novel, Part Three: Character

Tips on Writing: Prepping For the Novel, Part Four: Story

 

The Long-haul (or, Sticking With It)

 

Making the Magic Happen: Committing to a Writing Schedule

Fast-Drafting Fiction (Or Any Other Kind of Writing)

Never Underestimate the Power of a Writing Prompt

Willingness: The Mindset for Writing a Novel

Writing Every Morning

 

Character

 

Characters at Cross Purposes

7 Ways to Get to Know Your Characters

9 Ways to Create Characters Readers Will Identify With

Creating Characters: Compassion and Conflict

The Ordinary Day

 

Setting

 

Building Your Fictional World

The Power of Place

Location, location, location

 

Structure

 

Overcoming Flat Scenes: Rising and Falling Action

Story Structure 

The Value of (Groan) Structure

Saturday Writing Tip: Scenes

 

Okay, that ought to keep you busy for awhile.  And remember, I'm teaching my novel writing class this fall, starting in October, if this has whetted your whistle for the process. 

Next link round-up is a week from today, Tuesday, September 8, on journaling!

 

Are You a Right-Brain or Left-Brain Dominant Writer?

ElliottBayBooks

A Stack 'O Writing Books

I learned a different way of looking at my writing this weekend, a way that I think will help inform how I plan and plot a novel. (One of the things I love best about writing is that there's always something new to learn.  It's impossible to be bored by it.) I'm thinking this thing will help you, too, so let's discuss.  But first, some background.

This past weekend, I went to Seattle with my daughter.  We took the train up and back (the best way to travel), stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel downtown, and reconnected with an old friend and met her new family.  (One of the most adorable two-year-olds on the planet, second only to my own granddaughter.)

One of the best times we had was Saturday afternoon, when we hung out at the new (to us) location of Elliott Bay Books.  The bookstore is dotted with large tables at which you can while away the afternoon.  Which is exactly what we did. It felt like the height of luxury to spend a couple of hours doing nothing but looking at books.  My daughter perused books from the design section, and I pulled out stack after stack of titles from the writing section.  I read through many of them,  took notes from some, and ended up buying two:

Naming the World, and other exercises for the creative writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston.  I remember being at AWP years ago right when this book came out. It is comprised of brief essays and accompanying writing exercises from a wide variety of writers.  I'm always looking for exercises for myself and my students–I'm not sure why I haven't bought this one earlier.  It is excellent.  (I especially love the section of Daily Warm-ups at the back.)

PlotWhispererThe Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson.  I've read her blog, but for some reason shied away from the book, which has been out a few years.  I'm only a short way in, but the book is excellent.  And the thing that has grabbed my attention is the distinction she makes between left-brain dominant writers and right-brain dominant writers.  To wit:

The left-brained writer thinks in language more often than images and is quite comfortable with action.  He might also be analytical and detail-oriented.  Alderson says that if you crave action and "spew out dialogue at will" you are a left-brained writer.

The right-brained writer thinks in pictures rather than language and likely starts his writing developing characters or emotional moments in the story.  He takes a more intuitive approach.  If you fall in love with your characters and love to ponder theme and meaning, you are more right-brain oriented.

Raise your hand if you recognize yourself in one of the descriptions above.  Me! Choose me!  I'm a right-brained writer through and through.  I can't think of a novel or story I've written that didn't start with a character, and because of this I also have a few abandoned stories littering my computer, because I didn't know how to develop action for the character.

It doesn't matter which one you are, but it helps to figure that out from the get-go.  Because just as I've struggled with action in my stories, the left-brained writer will struggle with getting character emotion and detail into her work.  And if you know that going in, you'll know where your weaknesses lie and you can figure out how to correct them.

You'll know that if your left brain tends to be more dominant, you'll need to learn to focus on character, imagery, and emotion.  Conversely, if your right brain rules the roost, you'll have to focus on plot and goal and structure.  (There are ways to do this without freaking yourself out.)

Alderson has an interesting offer on her website.  (I'm in no way affiliated with her, just intrigued by the info she's presenting.)  It's called Writing a Story Takes You on an Epic Journey, and since it is in beta, it is really inexpensive (like $14.99, amazing). 

So that's what I learned this weekend.  Does the concept of left-brain dominant and right-brain dominant writers resonate with you?  Which are you? Do discuss in the comments.

All images are by moi.  I've been using Instagram a lot lately.  Come follow me there, why don't you?