Monday, March 8

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, March 08, 2010 14 comments
My library haul this past week was eye-opening. Two of the four books had amazing voice, but the plots fizzled, in part because of subplot sputter-out. I've seen this ailment in contemporary YA more than other genres, and it got me pondering why that might be.

In analyzing the problematic plots, I found it helpful to contrast with a book that did succeed where the others failed. Because book three of the library haul was a winner: Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. (Thanks to Sherrie at Write About Now for recommending it!) For brevity, I'll cite it as DG&DP.

The best books' subplots relate to the main plot. They complicate matters or shed light on the core story problem or bring surprising help to the MC. Less effective subplots pop in to create tension for the sake of tension, feel inorganic and almost never resolve. I see three core areas to address in your plot when thinking about and creating effective subplots.

Stakes. If your MC's dilemma is too low-stakes, you will be tempted to create tension for tension's sake with very random plot elements. You know what I mean--explosions, zombie attacks, unmotivated fights, suicide attempts, unplanned pregnancies and the like--because something needs to happen here.

Your novel's protagonist must have something at stake worthy of a 200+ page exploration. There must be something of great value to be lost, and the cost of that loss should be devastating. One can raise the stakes over the course of the book by upping the value of the desired thing (make winning it have multiple rewards) and/or making failure appear more and more costly (make losing it have multiple punishing effects).

DG&DP opens with 13-yo Steven voicing self-confidence problems and resentment of his angelic little brother. When angelic brother is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's issues take on a whole new twist. Fighting for attention from parents and seeking status at school continue to plague Steven, and small wins in these subplots help him cope with the high-stakes main plot. It's because Steven is dealing with such a huge issue--possible death of a family member--that his moments of struggle with smallness matter very much. Will this trial make him grow up or regress? If he regresses, will it tear his fragile family apart?

The story-problem stakes give weight to the subplots and the subplots up the stakes of the story problem.

Natural consequences. The anxiety, stress or time-suck of your main story problem will cause ripples in other areas of the MC's life. Think through what those might be and you can have tension-building subplots that feel organic.

In DG&DP, Steven's ability to concentrate at school evaporates. He eventually begins having confrontations with teachers about it. His options for repairing the problem involve tutoring with guess who? That's right, two love interests.

Steven's usual coping mechanism is to escape into music making. As a result, his skill improves and becomes his means of reaching out to others.

Relational fallout. In times of high stress, relationships around your MC will always be tested. Exploring how those around the MC help and/or hinder her can be a great way to build up and release tension. Those she seeks for support may disappoint, distract, disappear. The weak sidekick may show surprising strength when put to the test.

In DG&DP, the father character emotionally shuts down. Steven struggles with the very same tendencies, and seeing how his father's unavailability hurts him, he begins to change.

What are your thoughts about causes of subplot sputter-out? Read any good books lately that have organic subplots that support the main plot and resolve adequately?

A side observation: Sonnenblick's wonderful book was a debut novel, while the unnamed not-so-effective novels were by established authors. I very frequently wonder if established authors are forced to write under tremendous deadline pressure and if their storytelling suffers as a result. What do you think?


  1. I agree with you about established authors and the pressure of their deadlines, sometimes I find a great first book, but the second just seems to fizzle toward the end. Thanks for this post, it was very eye opening and made me think about some things with my own writing :)

  2. Great post as usual, Laurel! I've been thinking a lot lately about my MC and if the tension that I've added makes sense or if I just wrote it because I knew that scene "needed" something. I seem to have a lot of tension towards the end of the book that works- it's the beginning I'm have trouble with.

  3. Good stuff! Thanks for sharing this:)

  4. Wonderful post--very helpful. And I couldn't agree with your points more. I hate subplots that feel like a waste of space and never go anywhere. I'll have to check out the book where it was done well. Thanks for the rec. :)

  5. Hi Laurel!

    While I agree that established authors have deadlines they need to worry about, and this in turn affects their writing, I also think about many other established authors who regularly delivers good quality novels. Neil Gaiman once said he only went through two major revisions because he had to write the book as perfect as he could the first time around because of his deadlines.

    So I think it depends on the author, and how they chose to handle the stress of deadlines and the transition between published and unpublished.

  6. Great post. Too often it seems like subplots are just after thoughts and extra words tacked on to fill out a story/novel, and there's little to no interweaving between the story elements. It's almost as if the author doesn't think the work stands on its own.

  7. Crystal: Glad it was helpful. I wish I could get an author to talk about that part of success--the part where you're expected to churn out product as fast as possible. So far, I only have my hunches to go on.

    Kelly: I know the middle I ripped out of WIP-1 had some trumped-up tension. But the seeds of great subplots were in the MS from the get go, it was a matter of identifying them. The second two areas I mention is a good place to look for subplot potential.

    Karen: Glad it's useful.

  8. It's always interesting to see why a book doesn't work for me. I've become much better at spotting the problems since I've become more interested in writing :)

  9. Shannon: Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie is excellent, and the subplots so organic (it straddles MG/YA, though my library had it in YA). I also admire writers who can build subplots that seem random, but actually tie into the main plot in unexpected ways.

    Elizabeth: I was merely theorizing, wondering. I do wish an author would talk about the deadline pressure issue. Perhaps publisher expectations are not as bad as I dream they are.

    Sarahjayne: Tacked on subplots are annoying, but I get just as frustrated with organic elements that arise and are simply dropped. I start to wonder "is it just a word-count problem, time pressure or did the author honestly forget about the tense side situation she never resolved?"

  10. Jemi: how cool, we're online at the same time. I definitely "read like a writer" far more these days. Then comes the hard work of figuring out WHY something didn't work in the book I'm reading and looking for applications to my own work.

  11. This was an stupendously helpful post. I've never looked at sub-plot quite that way before. *sings* So helpful!!!

  12. Tina: Glad to be of help. The fact that even established authors struggle to get it right is kind of encouraging, isn't it?

  13. Great post, Laurel! I liked your point about creating tension with random elements instead of making it organic to the story. I think that's what makes many stories not ring true. And I'm so glad you enjoyed Drums!

  14. Sherrie: DG&DP had some of the best use of subplot I've seen in a long time--nothing random, all so organic. Thanks again for the great recommendation. I'll definitely be by to get more great reading ideas from you.