Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sub Routines

Well hello again, blogging friends. First off, a confession that things have not progressed so well on the book this week. My 17-year-old stepson came out of hospital last weekend after an operation on his knees, however he picked up an infection while he was under - fluid went into his lungs - so he's been on antibiotics and has been pretty poorly. He's getting there now but will probably be off school all next week again while he finishes the course.

Today was a good day though - we took the kids to see Santa and got our first sprinkling of snow (nothing traffic-stopping - yet). We got Andrew all wrapped up and he had a great time. Still don't feel Christmassy, though - bah, humbug...

So, onto the topic of today's post. You might have guessed from the terrible pun in the title (and the picture) that I'm going to talk about subplots. I guess they're something I'm still trying to work out how to handle. Last week, when I was making better headway, I introduced two subsidiary characters apart from the main two. This was at about 13000 words in, which might seem a bit late - but I was really involved in setting the main story up and establishing those characters. When I was writing my first novel, I threaded through a lot more subplot elements on the second draft, once I knew the whole story.

If I was going to offer advice on the subject, I would say that subplots should always be related to the main story. Sounds obvious, but there are many examples where this is not the case. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck includes many stories taken from his own family's history which have nothing to do with the main plot. I have nothing against these stories - some are charming, others funny or tragic - but they slow things down and I feel might have been better as a separate book.

Subplots should offer clues to how minor characters relate to the main action, how they see things and so on. They can have their own stories, but there should be enough there for perceptive readers to see how they link to the central thrust, without being blindingly obvious. A difficult balance to achieve.

For these reasons, I think it's OK to write a lot of subplot material on a second draft, as I did. To know how all the jigsaw pieces fit together and lay them all down on a first draft seems to me an amazing feat. I wonder how many writers can do this?

And they're not always necessary. A book like Room contains zero subplots as everything is seen from the perspective of the five-year-old boy - having that one voice throughout makes for a great intensity. But multilayered books can, obviously, be very satisfying.

So how do you approach subplots? I reckon it depends on whether you know your story inside-out before you start. What do you think?


Julius Cicero said...

I love subplots! I prefer to write out of order and then connect the dots, so subplots work well for me. I guess it really depends on you, your story, and how you want to tell it. Best of luck to you!

Trisha said...

I would agree that subplots should be related to the main plot, for sure!

In one of my novels, subplots are only ever observed by the main character but they're always affecting her and what she thinks of her own life.

Nick Wilford said...

Julius - Yes, that is a good way to approach it, moving things around afterwards so it all makes sense.

Trisha - That's a good idea to keep a single viewpoint on all the subplots, particularly if you want the reader to be right inside that character's head.

Martin Willoughby said...

I'm not sure how I approach them, they just end up in the book if they fill a need of the story or a character.

Unknown said...

I'm currently working through a first draft. In my planning stages, I had subplot ideas coming to me while fleshing out the preliminary and secondary characters. So I have a sort of road map I'm following. But people will pop out and join the party as I go along, as always happens. I agree with you that weaving together those subplots is a lot easier during the second draft, when you've met your entire cast and know what happens in the end.

Great post!

Stu Ayris said...

Hi Nick! First I want to thank you for using the phrase Subroutine! It took me right back to my ZX Spectrum days copying all that code out of magzines just to get some crappy though enchanting little game. Wonderful!

In terms of sub-plots in novels, I must confess to being rather naive in what all the different aspects that make up a novel are. When I write, I get this overwhelming feeling that what I am writing is from some form of remembered script. When things are going well it means I am remembering accurately, when things are going not so well it is just me trying to force the direction of the story.

So I guess I'm not too much help with all this. My advice is pour some whisky, close your eyes, write what comes into your head and be led by your soul. There.

Easy!! (says the poor fool who is trying in vain to get his novel published...)

Nick Wilford said...

Martin - Sounds like they come pretty naturally to you - that's a good thing!

Nicole - I have a vague outline of my book too, but only really with one subplot (the one I've just started). More might come up, I'll wait and see. I suppose on the second draft, you might have to get rid of a lot of stuff that's good, but not necessarily essential to the main plot. A shame, but that's how it goes!

Stu - You might like the picture of the yellow submarine too :) We didn't have a Spectrum, but a C64 - games on tapes that took half an hour to load, those were the days...

That sounds great that writing comes so intuitively to you. I guess that means you're getting the story right. I don't know all the elements that should go into a novel either - I suspect it's different in every case. I like trying to work things out though.

Thanks for your advice - although think I'll leave the whisky!

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Subplots are tricky. I think doing the subplot material in the second draft is a fabulous idea. I don't really realize I have subplots sometimes until my first draft is done. Then I go back and fine tune them in my edits and revisions. ;)

I hope your stepson is feeling better! That's scary!

Thanks for stopping by my blog! :)

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I really don't think about it much. I know I never want to take away from the main story I'm trying to convey, so I guess you could say I tend to use them sparingly. I certainly hope your stepson is recovering and feeling better!!

Jayne said...

I don't think I have ever consciously thought about the sub-plots. The story evolves and they just pop up naturally. But things do shine more when you go through the zillionth edit, so maybe sub plots start off a bit undefined and then come to the fore during redrafting.

Nick Wilford said...

Chantele - Thanks for your kind words about Andrew, and on my pitch!

Yes, on the second draft you can also pick out what really matters to the overall plot, and discard the rest.

Ro - Yes, books with little or no subplots can be more intense. Thanks for asking after Andrew!

Jayne - The more times you read through, the more you see what is important.

Jes said...

I enjoy subplots, but like you said, they have to tie into the main plot. Otherwise, what's the point? Random anecdotes bug the you-know-what out of me, lol. As for the writing perspective, I'm still knee deep in my first novels, and the subplots *wrinkled forehead* will have to come later. So I'm making notes :). Many, many notes.

Oh, and second the whiskey.

Nick Wilford said...

Jes - It seems to be a common theme in this thread that subplots become more clear when you've finished the first draft. Good luck keeping track of those notes! It can be a headache trying to tie everything together.