Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Constructing and Weaving in Subplots

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile2501247069216 (1)

My last post was about my layering approach to writing books, and I got a question from a blog reader about how to create subplots and then how to weave the subplot layer into a finished draft.

Subplots are sometimes my favorite part of a book. In fact, occasionally the main plot of a novel will leave me cold as a reader and I’ll flip ahead in the book just to find out how the subplot ends up.

My subplots are almost always humor-based and end up tying into the book’s ending. Your subplot could involve a budding romance, or the protagonist’s teenager’s gradual descent into drug use…really, any plot smaller than the main one that can enhance the main plot (through conflict or character development or by adding complications) in some way.

*****Since I don’t like to write spoilers for anyone else’s books, I’ll do a couple for mine (in books that are older releases) as examples… they’re minor spoilers. But heads up if you’re one of my readers!*****

What I do is come up with complete, small episodes…almost short stories. Then I create scenes with each installment of the subplot story, to create what will end up being a running serial throughout the main plot. For me, it could even be on the level of a running joke that suddenly has more significance at the end of the book.

Most of my books have more than one subplot. The subplots vary in length and complexity. I’ll use two for examples…a very short one and a longer one.

One of my subplots involved two men who were friends with each other and also friends with my sleuth. One of the men was bragging about a prized bottle of expensive and rare wine that he’d acquired. The other man kept dropping hints or outright begging to come over and share a glass of this wine. He found opportunities to celebrate and eagerly asked his friend if he’d open the bottle. But the friend always refused.

I started this subplot fairly early in the book—and dropped in the dialogue mentioning it following a regular scene in the book. So I had a first mention of the subplot with the man bragging about the wine. Then I continued with it at intervals throughout the story….again, each mention was like a mini-episode or the next installment of the mini-serial. So I wrote in a couple of other mentions, escalating the friend’s frustration and his requests to participate in a wine tasting.

Then, at the end of the book, I had the friend completely give up on the chance that he’d ever sample the wine. He decides to go to the wine store and purchase a bottle himself. On the way back with the wine, he comes across the sleuth in a perilous situation near the wine store, and drops the bottle to come to her aid.

This is really, the briefest of subplots. It adds a little humor to the story when things get serious with the murders. It gives the opportunity for bits of character development as my protagonist reacts to the friends’ battle over the wine. It gives a change of pace. And then the subplot makes a surprise appearance again at the end of the story and lends a feeling of continuity and completion at the finish.

Another subplot I wrote into a different series was a little longer and a bit more involved. My protagonist for that series, Myrtle, is a crotchety elderly woman who has a reputation for being prickly. A feral cat takes up with her and she genuinely becomes charmed with it…although the cat attacks visitors to her home. She admires its toughness.

Again, I wrote the subplot straight through on a separate document—the whole story of the subplot in episodes. Then I wove those little episodic scenes into the main plot and tied it into the ending.

Throughout the story the subplot developed: Myrtle becomes acquainted with the cat, the cat acts out with various visitors to the home. The cat develops a true fondness for Myrtle and decides to bring her gifts—sometimes gifts that aren’t dead. Myrtle receives bunnies and other creatures from her determined cat friend. I interspersed these episodes throughout the book. This particular subplot helped develop Myrtle as a character—and showed another, softer, side to her.

At the end, when Myrtle is confronted by the killer, a separate subplot comes back into play (Myrtle’s horrible cooking that plagues the series) which leads into the cat’s intrusion during Myrtle’s confrontation with the murderer….which creates enough of a distraction for Myrtle to take control of the situation.

So….that’s it in a nutshell. I do want my subplots to end up impacting the main plot, develop my characters a bit, and relieve tension in my books. I write them as complete stories, then chop them up into scenes and intersperse them through the main story. Then I tie the subplot into the ending of my book (which also helps me with writing endings…never my favorite thing to write.)

Hope this helps instead of being completely confusing. Now it’s your turn—how do you write in subplot layers to your book? I’d love to hear some other ideas (especially since, when I find something that works for me, I stop thinking of other approaches!)