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The Power of the Subplot (How Not to Write a Confusing Novel)

I'm currently taking a course over at Writer's Digest University on outlining your novel. I've attempted a novel three times in the past and each time bogged down several thousand words into the effort because I lost track of my story.

It took three failed pantsing attempts to realize that the plotting approach is superior. I won't criticize you pantsers out there, after all some of you are best selling authors, but the successful pantsers have a deep understanding of story structure and they still plan many of the details in their heads--things the rest of us mortals would have to write down to keep track of.

I'm firmly in the plotting camp these days, but even as I'm working to outline my novel, I've written thousands of words in free write to juice my creativity and explore setting, characters, plot twists and more. It's fun. I'm basically pantsing to discover my story. The only difference is that I don't intend to use these free writes in my first draft. They are only intended to help me create my outline.

The Problem With Ideas

Many people seem to think that coming up with creative ideas is the biggest challenge in writing a book. I suppose people think the same thing about inventing something or starting a business. However, ideas are a dime a dozen and everyone has lots of them.

I think what happens to people is that they evaluate ideas too quickly and judge them as good or bad. If you let the ideas flow, they naturally lead into other ideas and so on. Soon you have ideas running out your ears. This is what I love about free writes. I have no limits.

Consequently though, my biggest problem in outlining my novel so far has been an overabundance of ideas which have no structure. I think I know what my main plot is, but I also have several other plot lines and I can't figure out how they are going to fit together to capture the reader's imagination and keep them on the edge of their seat.

What is a Plot?

In order to clarify my path forward I decided to revisit story structure and found myself reading the ever so helpful website novel-writing-help.com and K.M. Weiland's book "Structuring Your Novel".

I focused my reading on the idea of plot.

So, what is a plot?

A plot is a series of events moving from point A to point B where each event depends on the one before.

Imagine a chain of dominoes, for example, each knocked down by the one before it.

There's a lot of information packed into that definition of plot. We'll have to unpack the gory details another day. For now, I just want to talk about how to start untangling your big ideas into something that starts to look like a coherent story.

Plot v. Subplot

I found that I had several different plots among my free writes that I wanted to incorporate into the novel. I was trying to cram them all together into a single plot line and this was a problem.

Allow me to share a a concrete example.

Let's suppose the following ideas emerge from our free writes for a new novel we're working on:

  • Young, driven female business owner hires a male assistant
  • Male assistant is a fun-loving surfer who just needs to pay the bills
  • Business owner gets a huge opportunity to take her business to the next level
  • Assistant is supposed to email a document, but he forgets and the deal is ruined
  • Meanwhile, business owner is lonely and laments the lack of dating opportunities
  • Assistant thinks business owner is stuck up
  • Business owner fires assistant, but they end up falling in love

Now, this is not a bad start, but we have at least two competing plots here. One plot is about our heroine trying to grow a business. The other plot is about our heroine finding love and happiness.

The above list can't really be called a plot because they're just ideas, they aren't events with cause and effect relationships.

We could say that the story is about growing a business and finding love, but readers are left confused wondering if they should be rooting for her business to succeed or for her to find love. The two will clash and we'll be confused about which one to hope for.

A novel needs to have one, clear, focused goal for the protagonist. It should be your major plot line.

Let's say that the business owner's real goal is to find love.

If that's the case, what do we do with the business? Where does it fit in?

Building the business becomes the subplot. One of the possible functions of a subplot is to frustrate your main character's real goal.

The Birth of Conflict

This clash between the goal of the main plot and the goal of the subplot becomes the source of conflict. And I'm sure you've heard all too many times that a story must have conflict.

When we talk about conflict in a story, what we really mean is that there are several impediments which prevent your hero from reaching the goal they most desire. These impediments can be other characters, but they can also be physical barriers, emotional barriers or geographical barriers. And usually the main character is his or her own worst enemy. Their internal conflicts are often the last ones that must be resolved before reaching their goal.

In the current example, the young woman's desire to build a business becomes an impediment to her desire to find love. This creates the tension and conflict. And, of course, she is also thwarted by her assistant who is both a good-looking distraction and an unwitting saboteur of her business.

When you find yourself with too many ideas like I did, ask yourself which plot is the main one based on what your protagonist really wants. Then allow the other plot lines to become subplots which serve as obstacles to reaching the real goal. This will give your story the clarity and conflict it needs to make it a book your readers can't put down.