Friday, January 7, 2011

The Importance of Subplots

Picture_009_pIn my role as Mommy, I drive a carpool with another neighborhood mom to the elementary school and the middle school. I drive mornings, and she drives afternoons.

The carpools are early, with the elementary one running at 6:45 and the middle school one at 7:15. The kids are sometimes a little bleary-eyed. The traffic is heavy and slow. Occasionally, conversation drags a bit.

I’ll try to get their brains moving in an academic direction. “So, it’s Friday. What’s going on at school today?”

I'll usually get a desultory recitation from one of the kids about Algebra or P.E. or the new book they’re reading in Language Arts and sometimes the other child will chime in with more information or to dispute the facts the other is offering (“No, the test is on Tuesday.”)

It’s sort of the running main plot of our carpool: What’s going on at school today and are you prepared for it? The kids would be shocked if I didn’t ask, I’m sure. I also do a little monologue on the weather…that’s always popular. :)

Then I move onto other things and it’s interesting how both carpools come to life.

With the elementary carpool (all girls) we have a sort of running fascination with the way the food service truck tries to cut through the extremely backed-up carpool line to get to the loading dock at the back of the school cafeteria. Why does he always come at 7:00 a.m.? If he always runs into the same problem, why not come earlier or later? Does he actually enjoy this daily dose of frustration? Will the carpool allow him to cut through or will it be a sort of automotive Red Rover game? The girls could speculate over all these things endlessly.

With the middle school (boy) carpool, we have another running storyline. It involves the lunchroom ladies and their wretched attempts to park their cars each day. One lady, driving a minivan, takes up four spaces, with one tire in each spot. Two other lunch ladies take up two spaces apiece. We speculate on this, too. Why do they park so poorly? Can’t they tell they’re not in one spot? Is it all a special plot—for lunch ladies only-- that we just know nothing about? Do they have plans for taking over even more parking spaces…maybe by adding a trailer to their cars or dangling a long ladder out the back?

It’s very idle, silly, talk—but these topics provide a serial story for my bored carpoolers each day.

I think that’s the part that subplots play. They offer some relief from the main plot. Some variety.

Sometimes subplots show a steady progression toward a conclusion when the main plot still seems hopelessly entangled and rife with setbacks.

Sometimes a subplot can give the reader another reason to keep reading the book….will Joe and Mary ever go out for that coffee together? Will Frank ever quit that dead-end job and tell his overbearing boss off?

Subplots can be a way to do a little genre blending on a minor level for maybe some crossover appeal (romantic subplots, etc.)

Maybe there’s a really appealing supporting character that gets his moment in the spotlight with a subplot.

As a reader, I always get especially excited if the subplot ties into the main plot in some way. It’s major bonus points for me and my enjoyment of a book. (As I’m sure the kids would be dying to get home and let me know if the lunchroom ladies ended up in Algebra class for some reason.)

Do you enjoy subplots as a reader or a writer?