Subplots: Enough is enough

I’m a novelist and an unashamed eavesdropper. This superpower has often come in useful in my short story writing, and my novels. So when an intriguing snippet of conversation drifted over the cubicles in the changing rooms at my local swimming pool, I dashed out to the car (remembering to get dressed first…) and wrote it down fast. The scenario I’d just overheard would make a great subplot.

Subplots are useful for a number of reasons. I’ve previously written about their advantages here: but the main ones are:

  • Character development, revealing the flaws and traits of a one-dimensional character
  • Adding interest to the story, bringing drama, pathos and mystery to a flat storyline
  • Bringing in a fresh set of characters to add impediments or obstacles
  • Providing an alternative ending to add a twist or complication
  • Putting the reader off the scent and delaying the outcome

They are best avoided if the only reason to add a subplot is to inflate the word count.

I was at the halfway mark with my WIP when I realised the novel was going to come up short in the word count. I needed another subplot.

Be careful what you wish for, is my advice.

The WIP was languishing, stuck in a saggy middle of my own making, when I had the flash of inspiration at the swimming pool. What if, I thought, the writer of the letters was the mysterious, absent sister, and not the character I originally had in mind? Brilliant! I am a literary genius.

I’d already written an exciting subplot concerning said sister, but I proceeded to dismantle this and write the new storyline. Trouble is, I’m telling the story from three separate points of view, so this little change had a knock-on effect on everyone. You know how it goes: if A did this, B would have to do that and C would reveal something she shouldn’t even know about.   

What started as a small tweak morphed into a major rewrite and many wasted hours trying to get my characters to fit this new narrative. It changed everything.The novel became a different story. A very complicated one.

I found myself constantly checking backwards to make sure the different elements agreed with each other. I wasn’t making much headway. This, after promising myself at the start that I would write this novel to the very end before starting any editing. But everything I wrote was coloured by this new idea, and not in a good way.

It had to go.

I’ve just finished another major rewrite, taking out this ridiculous subplot and developing my characters into more rounded and credible individuals without any deviations from my original plot. I feel much happier now. My story and I are progressing.

Subplots? Meh.


Short Story Writing

We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.

A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.

A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.

Once you’ve chosen an idea, remember these basic steps: Continue reading

Day Twenty Six

Word Count: 49,007

This has been a most productive and exciting day. Over 5,000 words. I’ve tried to make them sensible words – and I hope the story hangs together in a pleasing manner. But where did they come from? I’ve no idea – there’s obviously a well of words inside me and I hope it never dries up.

Tom Clancy once posed the question, The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. There can be no unexplained happenings and certainly no coincidences, because fiction abhors a coincidence, just as nature abhors a vacuum.

Day Twenty Five

Word Count: 43,712

On the final stretch now and the words have to keep coming. Where do I find them?

William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about writing. In Act 2, scene 2 of Hamlet, our eponymous hero utters the immortal phrase, ‘Words, words, words.’ He’s obviously done this challenge, too.

Ray Bradbury said, ‘You fail only if you stop writing.’

With this kind of pressure, I can’t possibly stop until it’s over. Only 5 more days and 6,288 words ….

Day Twenty Four

Word Count: 42,393

I’m creeping forward, word by word. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, and just as painful.

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,’ said Virginia Woolf. I’ve got the room, what I need now is enough money to give up work and concentrate on writing.

Actually, what I really need is a rich benefactor.

Day Seventeen

Word Count: 32,912

Writing, per se, took a bit of a back seat today, hence the poor word count. However, I haven’t been idle.

The most productive part of my writing day is spent staring into space. Agatha Christie said that the best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes and I would have to agree with the sentiment. Lying, sleepless, in bed is another good time, much to the disgruntlement of my long-suffering partner. The intermittent illumination, the scratching of my pencil and the turning of the pages of my notebook to catch my thoughts before they disappear into the ether, never to be recalled, do nothing for my relationship.

I’ve tried waiting until the morning, but I’ve discovered, to my eternal regret, that mostly I remember nothing. Nada. Zilch. Sometimes, if I’m very unlucky I remember that there was something I wanted to remember, but I can’t remember what it was.

Like Man Friday’s footprint, a ghostly impression on an otherwise blank canvas.

Day Fourteen

Word Count: 27,731

Good, natural dialogue is difficult to write. Not done skilfully, it can sound stilted and awkward, as if it’s being spoken by puppets.

I’ve been writing a lot of dialogue today, moving the story along with what’s revealed in conversation, rather than in narrative and description, and I was heartened to find this quote from Elmore Leonard: All the information you need can be given in dialogue.

Says it all, really.

Day Thirteen

Word Count: 26,619

If the thought really is father to the deed I should be finished by now.

But I’m over half way and to ring the changes, I’ve just introduced something I’ve never considered before – a murder. When Raymond Chandler was stuck he would have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand, so at least I’m in good company.

Day Twelve

Word Count 24,002

The ‘2’ is important. E.L. Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Every word is important in this exercise; it’s how I’ll get to the finish, feeling my way in the dark.