Monday, September 26, 2005
Happy Monday, BGs.
Before we get into subplots, I want to respond to numerous comments from Friday about writing supernatural thrillers for the Genesis Award, hoping for one of those five Warner Faith slots. I, too, think you should write what you feel impassioned to write, and not what you think a publishing house will want. You can’t always judge what a house wants by what it has published so far, anyway. As one BG mentioned, look at the new television season line-up. Supernatural stories are everywhere. It’s as hot now as forensics was a few years ago. A house that has published no supernatural thriller may want to do so, but simply hasn’t seen the caliber of manuscript yet in that category that’s gotten them really excited. So write a slam bang one and excite them with yours.
Okay, subplots. Do I use 'em? Yes. Pretty much in every book. I’ll just talk a little here about how I use them and why, and then y’all can ask questions as necessary.
1. My subplots grow naturally out of my characters’ (particularly the protagonist’s) personal lives. In my current Hidden Faces suspense series, Annie’s son, Stephen, has provided a subplot in all three books currently on the shelves. He’s been a rebellious kid, and falling more and more into drug use. I’ve used that as a continuing struggle in her life. I’ve also used a romantic subplot to a lesser degree. There was no romantic subplot in book 1, the beginnings of it in book 2, and a stronger one in book 3. Book 4 will continue the romantic subplot.
2. In suspense, subplots help ratchet up the tension and keep it there. I’m always looking for high tension, and this can’t be caused by a dead body showing up or some chase scene on every page. Most of the time the tension has to come from that corkscrew effect of things in the protagonist’s life turning tighter and tighter. A messed up kid, or some other relationship, a physical handicap or illness, a loss—any of these things can help make things difficult for the protagonist. With a good subplot going, you can let the main suspense plot rest for a minute and focus on the growing difficulties coming from these other issues in the character’s life.
3. In my opinion, a good subplot ends up dovetailing into the main plot. I’ve read books with personal issue subplots that never affect the main plot at all. It’s just this side thing going on in the character’s life. I come away from those books feeling as if the author couldn’t think of a main plot deep enough to fill the pages, so this subplot had to be tacked on. Just doesn’t set very well with me. I want to see the two plots coalesce. There’s a more subtle way to do that, and a more “gotcha” way, and well, you know me, I’m gunnin’ for the latter.
4. First, the more subtle way of bringing the two plots together. I’d call it the “Finite Energy” approach. As problems in a protagonist’s personal life weigh her down and sap her energy, she’s left with less vitality to fight in the main suspense plot. The added vulnerability and exhaustion can lead her to overlook an obvious clue, tempt her to just give up, and in general push her more to the brink. And of course in suspense, it’s all about torturing your protagonist. She’s got to end up at the brink, or the reader’s not likely to feel satisfied. (Suspense readers are a sadistic lot.)
5. The second way of bringing subplot and main plot together could be called “Converging Streams.” This is the approach I’ve used in all three Hidden Faces books with the son Stephen subplot. I’m not going to get real specific here, because I don’t want to give away any of the stories for those of you who haven’t yet read the books. (Notice the word yet, heh-heh.) Some general examples: In Brink of Death, (book 1), Annie makes a choice of where to go because of her son’s issues. That choice places her in a location in which she ends up doing something in regard to the main suspense plot. In Stain of Guilt (book 2), son Stephen’s choices directly affect what happens to his mother in the main plot. In Dead of Night (book 3), there is a real clashing of the main serial killer plot and the son’s subplot. If you’ve read Dead of Night, you’ll see how the foundation for that ultimate clashing is set up right away. The very short prologue deals with the serial killer main plot. Chapter one deals with the son’s subplot. Chapter two goes back to the main plot. I would not have appointed such an important chapter—chapter 1—to deal with a subplot without a strong reason. And, even as chapter 1 deals with the subplot, Annie’s reactions and choices are largely fueled by what’s going on in the main plot.
A character is the sum of his experiences, just as a real person is. So even as your character faces some major dangerous crisis in his life, all these surrounding, smaller things are still happening. He may be fighting with a roommate, he may be about to lose his job. The possibilities are endless. So really, a good subplot ends up helping to characterize your protagonist and create him into a more three-dimensional person.
You can also create subplots based on secondary characters. These, too, should end up affecting the protagonist and the main plot in some way. Otherwise it’s gonna feel tacked on. And those secondary characters might try to take over the show.
I’ve hardly said anything of rocket science level here. Are there particular problems anyone’s having with a subplot that you’d like to talk about? If so, you know what to do.