Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, August 07, 2013 16 comments
A recent library haul was eye-opening. Two of the four books had amazing voice, but the plots fizzled, in part because of what I'd call "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. 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 begins to have 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 often wonder if established authors are forced to write under tremendous deadline pressure and if their storytelling suffers as a result. What do you think?

16 comments:

  1. Another good piece of advice for subplots is that they're a useful way of showing alternate approaches to the central theme or idea of the work. So in Court of Dreams, where a lot of my main plot is about facing up to ideas of responsibility, one of my main subplots is all about a character who has taken a slightly grumpy, beaten down, jobsworth approach to his profession (being an eight foot tall fairy assassin).

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    1. Excellent point. Subplots are a great place to dramatize what lit crit calls a "foil" character. These types of subplots shed light on the main plot through contrast--reflecting back an opposite or mirror image of your main character, his dilemma and his approaches to dealing with it.

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  2. I love the term subplots sputter out and have seen it happen so often lately. Most recently in a book that was so solid...except for that pesky subplot! Great tips.

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    1. Thanks, Johanna. Juggling multiple plotlines is an advanced skill that takes a long time to master, I think. Analyzing works that do it well has helped me quite a bit.

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    1. Glad you found it useful. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I agree totally and I'm one of those who tend to 'sag in the middle'. However, with my friend, a wonderful editor, she is pushing me and THIS time I think this problem will be avoided. :0)

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    1. Middle sag often comes from losing sight of the main plotline and having subplots that don't pull their weight. Here's to stronger middles!

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  5. I hate when someone does that- throws things in just for the sake of throwing things in. If it's not necessary, it shouldn't be there.

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    1. And yet most of us can tell when a story is dragging or not feeling interesting enough. Subplots have a place, but we need to be wise about how we use them to increase tension--tying it to the main story.

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  6. You did a really good job analyzing why subplots succeed or fail. Lack of tension is why I don't read Contemp, so I understand a Contemp writer throwing something in to try to shake things up, but not being able to tie it to plot or character arc. (Lack of dynamic character arc is another reason I don't read Contemp.) Very clever and helpful post, Laurel! :-)

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    1. Not every subgenre audience has the same expectations. Contemporary YA is about character rather than life-or-death-stakes plots. That doesn't mean stakes don't matter, but they are of a different quality.

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  7. I think I read a library book by Sonneblick recently - a novel about photography, a baseball injury, and dealing with a grandparent with Alzheimer's . . . there were many subplot twists, but it all revolved around that, and each subplot drove the main plot forward. (And I looked up the name and it's "Curveball: The Year I Lost my Grip." He's a talented writer, and I want to read more of his work, and study what he does . . . so hopefully I can apply it to my own writing.

    BTW, great analysis!

    I have read established authors whom have continued to grow as writers, and established writers who didn't. I just think it depends on the writer, and their journey.

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    1. Perhaps some writers are simply better at planning and tying together subplots than others. I agree that Sonnenblick is a good one to study.

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  8. Sub-plot sputter is now in my vocabulary. I may refer to it frequently and I'll certainly take a closer look at those I'm threading throughout my stories.

    What a fab post!

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    1. Ha. Glad you like my silly alliterative terminology. Guess it was pretty catchy after all. :-)

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