WRITING TIPS – #4 Plots and Subplots

Is My Plot Good Enough?

When you have an idea for the plot of your next (or first) novel, whatever you do, don’t stop and spend six months trying to decide whether it’s an interesting enough plot to sustain a novel. Any plot can be good enough if it’s done right, with good pace, character development, and humor. It can be good enough if you love it.

Oh, and one more thing. Not only must you love it, you must have subplots. The first book I wrote was a very nice girl meets boy story. The plot revolved around forgiveness, and I loved it. The problem was that when I finished it, carefully not using any unnecessary scenes, I only had about a hundred pages. Some books might be in their perfect form at a hundred pages, but not this one. When I asked a successful writer what I could do, she said “subplots.”

Subplots

Take it from me – it’s much easier to START with subplots in mind than to go back and try to add them. And for a full length novel, you’re GOING to need them. Say your main plot is about a woman meeting her biological father. Maybe it’s called Genes. Maybe the story takes you through Annika’s decision to find him, her struggle to find him, and her struggle to understand him when she does find him.

Great. Now what could the subplots be? Let’s think of two. First, maybe Annika has a brother named Jens. Maybe Jens is happier not knowing who his father is, and he knows that if Annika meets their father, he’ll have to meet the father, too, or at least hear about him. Maybe Jens is on the verge of losing his job because he keeps coming to work late. Annika loves Jens and wants to find out what’s keeping him up so late that he can’t get to work on time. She also loves him so much that she’s not sure she wants to upset him by finding their father.

So there’s one subplot. At this point, you could write the whole book from Annika’s point of view (in first person, or third person limited) or you could switch back and forth between Annika’s point of view and Jens’s. For another subplot, you could make things more challenging for yourself by weaving in scenes of the father. Maybe he’s an addict. Maybe he’s famous. Is it a comedy? Maybe he’s hiding in Mexico to avoid paying parking tickets. (If it’s a comedy, Jens’s reason for staying up late could be funny, too. Maybe his neighbor’s son is convinced that Jens is a superhero, and Jens goes out late at night in costume and walks by the neighbor’s house to make sure the neighbor kid sees him.)

If you wanted to stick with Annika’s point of view, instead of your second subplot being about the dad, you could have another one about Annika. Maybe an old flame has offered her a job in another state, and she doesn’t want to move away from Jens, but she also wonders if there’s a chance to rekindle romance.

Plotting

A friend recently showed me a copy of J.K. Rowling’s notes on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You can find them online. In order to keep all her subplots moving along, she has in her notes a column for each one, and the chapter numbers along the left side of the page. Rowling is a master of plotting, and she shuffles her subplots so that you never tire of one because she sticks with it for too long, and you never forget about one because she doesn’t mention it for too long. And she has a lot more than three plots in one novel.

If you’re not the type to chart out your book before you begin, that’s okay. Just keep in mind that you’ll have more editing to do when you’re done. Did you tie up the ends of every plot (even the ones you might not have realized were plots when you started) and mention each plot frequently enough that the reader won’t forget one?

In Genes, we have a fine plot brewing. If you’re anything like me, though, you might accidentally skip to the climax too quickly if you don’t think about a few more bumps in the road for Annika. Does Jens’s misguided girlfriend send Annika fake letters from a nonexistent aunt? (I’m kind of wanting to write this book now!) What you don’t want is to get to the end of your story, have too few words, and try to pad your book with whole pages of how Annika feels. A whole page where the plot does not move forward is a storykiller, even if the prose is beautiful. We need to be careful to keep up the pace.

Like I said in the beginning, with good pacing, a little thought about subplots before you start, and interesting characters, almost any plot can be good enough for a great book.

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