Last week, I announced my five part blog series on “revise & resubmit” requests, and this week, it’s time to dig a little deeper…
Starting with plot lines.
Do you have that one relative or friend that goes off on tangents for what should be a simple story?
When you ask about their day, they start by telling you about a lunch they had with their friend Susie, and how Susie’s daughter is a physical therapist, but that she was fired last week, so now she is looking for an apartment in Midtown, which just got this really cool new Thai restaurant where Susie’s daughter’s boyfriend’s sister works…
Guess what? None of that information is relevant to the original question. It’s a tangent that distracts, overshadows and bores.
Guess what else? Books can do the same thing.
Stories – whether novels, TV shows, or that one story your crazy aunt tells at every family get together – need spice. They need depth and detail.
This is where subplots come in. They make your story richer! But they also run the risk of taking over – just like the example above. So after battling it out in my recent revision, I’m going to share the What, Why, and How on balancing multiple plot lines in your novel.
All plots are not created equal.
The Main Plot
First, I want you to answer the question that everyone asks: “What is your book about?”
If you are at a loss, examine your novel’s the turning points and climax. The scenes where these occur will help you identify the main plot.
Here’s my quick for State of Grace:
When a new case – and the promise of becoming partner – lands in her lap, Dani Anderson jumps at the opportunity to represent Abigail Brantley, a young girl wrongfully expelled from the elite Nashville Academy after a affair with her teacher. Dani is determined to save Abigail’s future, even as memories from her own traumatic past come back to threaten her carefully cultivated and controlled life.
There, I have now identified my main plot: winning the lawsuit against Nashville Academy in order to save her client’s future.
Your main plot is going to be what’s on the back of your novel and what gets the most “stage time” in the book itself.
Your novel should also have a few subplots, or secondary plots, which can take a variety of forms.
- Mirroring: This is an easy one, a subplot that mirrors the main plot but with different characters, different details or different circumstances. For instance in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick’s romance may constitute the main story, but Hero and Claudio are also falling in love.
- Contrasting: You know those times when you see a friend’s pictures on Facebook and it just makes you feel really bad and behind on life? That’s a contrasting subplot. Show a secondary character’s failure to grow as a direct opposite of your main character’s willingness to complete their journey, and it will make the hero’s arc that much more satisfying.
- Complicating: Here’s where all those difficult tasks and meddlesome characters come into play. Complicating subplots do not show growth, but they represent change that seriously intersects with the main plot. My main character in my second novel 700 Main dreams of opening her own restaurant, but the historical society keeps blocking all her renovations along the way, complicating the main plot.
- Romance: Lots of novels contain romantic elements but don’t quite fit into the romance genre. If it’s not on the back of the book, it’s just another subplot.
Every subplot should directly impact the main plot at one point or another. Otherwise, it can overshadow the main plot or distract the reader. Now don’t get me wrong, distracting the hero is a good thing. Use your subplots to pile on problems or throw them off balance, creating more tension and depth for your main plot as well.
But don’t let them become rivals, fighting for attention and taking away from the tension of the main plot.
We’ve discussed the definition of main plot vs. subplot and why it’s beneficial to keep them strictly prioritized, but now let’s see how exactly to do that…
- First things first, list out the goals of your main characters (anyone who exists for more than a scene). Each of those constitutes a plot.
- List those each goal in a column at the top of an Excel spreadsheet. Then list your chapters on the opposite axis. It should look something like this.
- Now as you read back through your manuscript, write in your spreadsheet each time one of those plots – subplots and main plot – pop up. It should look something like this.
When you are done, go back through your spreadsheet and analyze for the following red flags:
- Your main plot should show up in every single chapter’s cell, and the subplots should appear at regular intervals.
- Your main character’s journey – or internal growth – is ALWAYS a main plot and should also appear in every chapter. You can read more about that journey here.
- Your secondary characters are going to have their own subplots, but weave them in and make them relevant to all. That interaction raises the stakes.
- Note the different emotions in each cell. If in your romance subplot, you have five straight chapters of “we’re so happy” – you have a problem.
- If a chapter doesn’t contribute to any subplots or advance the main plot, it is not helping your story.
Once you have balanced your spreadsheet, you can go back through and rearrange, cut or trim your chapters. Let me be frank with you, this is NOT EASY. In fact, this was my biggest challenge when revising. But I know it also makes the next four steps much easier when you have all your ducks – or plots – in a row.
Next week, we’ll pick up the pace and fix those lulls to keep your reader – and prospective agent – engaged til the end.