Writing Tips & Tools

Friday, August 03, 2007

Lesson 18: Subplots

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section TWO: Subplots.

Plot layers are the several narrative lines experiences by the protagonist, while subplots are the narrative lines experienced by other characters. What does a narrative line look like? It's problems that take more than one step to resolve, in other words...it grows more complicated!

Now that we understand the lingo, which is better, layers or subplots? Today the word subplot is kinda' old-fashioned. Subplots are found throughout 20th century literature, and in contemporary novels.

Novels today benefit more from tightly weaving plot layers, than from the broad sprawl of subplots. but it is not to say that subplots don't have a place in a breakout novel!

Are there subplots that can be developed for your novel? Some writers are afraid to add subplots, for fear their story will run away with them. That fear is unfounded. Subplots may make a novel sprawl, but if carefully woven together with the main layers, the novel will have the rich tapestry feeling of real life!

Step 1: Who are your novel's most important secondary characters?

Step 2: what is the main problem, conflict, or goal faced by each of these characters?

Step 3: For each, what are the three main steps leading to the solution of that problem, the resolution of that conflict, or the attainment of that goal. Put another way, what are three actions, events, or developments...of the secondary characters...that you could not possibly leave out.

Step 4: Outline each secondary character's story. while your protagonist is at work on the main problem, what is each character doing to slove his own problem?

Note: What if your novel is not really about your hero, but about another character? That is the point of this exercise: To make secondary characters active, to give them lives and stories of their own. These are true subplots!

Follow-up: Weave your plot layers together with your subplots using the method in the building Plot exercis steps from yesterday. Add the nodes of conjuncture that you discover to your novel.

Conclusion: Can subplots and secondary characters steal the show? Yep! If they do it effectively enough, you may have the wrong protagonist. But most subplots are underdeveloped or nonexistent. This exercise can help give subplots a vital pulse.


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