Plot, Plot Layers, Subplot

OK, you’ve narrowed down your story to a plot template and you know what characters, events, settings are implied by the story you are thinking about and the plot template. You know some of the pitfalls of plots. Now what?

It think this is the hardest part of plotting a novel, going from generalities to particulars, actually choosing and writing scenes. But you have to make a start, so let’s get to it.

Working Methods

Plan or write. Plan first or write and see where it goes? Oh, the perennial question! I’ll dodge it, though, by saying you must follow your own bent. Find your own working methods and habits of working that produce pages that lead to a full draft of a novel.

However! IF you usually just start in writing, TRY planning each scene. IF you usually plan each scene, TRY just jumping into the writing. Every once in a while, it’s great to break your pattern of working and see what happens. Shake yourself up! (I suggested this once at a national conference and got several notes later that this was the best advice the writers had ever taken, the resulting novel was the best she had written – so try it!) If the results are disappointing, you can always go back to your original methods of writing your novel.

It just depends. But I just avoided the question again of what to write first, second, third, etc. And here’s where the answers get frustrating: it just depends. Not knowing your genre, audience, voice, characters, setting, plot template – I simply can’t say. But I can give general guidelines.

Try to write in scenes. A scene is a unit of story that is self-contained, in that it has a beginning, middle and end; it has a goal and a resolution (either tragedy or success); it plays a role in the story. Writing in scenes adds tension to a story and keeps the writing focused. (MUST you write in scenes? No. Yes. It depends. If you’ve never done it, try it!) This is easy advice to ignore; I did it for many years and my writing suffered. More on the anatomy of scenes tomorrow.

Working Attitudes’t be boring! Try to build in surprises. Bored readers won’t finish your story.

  • Scene cuts. With each new scene or chapter, stop and think about what is expected next. Don’t do it. Instead, jump ahead a bit more than expected.
  • Leap-frog story lines. Or leave a character in the middle of a crisis and leap frog to another character where you get us involved emotionally, before leap-frogging back to the first story line.
  • Ground your novel in physical, sensory details. In the scene’s opening, set the scene, especially the emotional tone. Do this by careful selection of sensory details and the specific words you use to describe what is happening.
  • Focus on emotions. Always remember to make us care about a character before springing danger.

Don’t be cliched! Brainstorm like crazy. Before you start a scene/chapter, list ten possible events and sequence of events. Yes. Ten. Not nine. Not eight. Ten. Force yourself to go beyond the cliche that you thought of first and go on to something different, more striking and more original.

Plot Complications and SubPlots

Depending on what source you consult, you may hear a couple terms used concerning subplots and plot layers, or extra complications for the main character. These work for me.

  • Plot layer. A secondary problem given to the same character, usually the main character. For example, if an orphan child wants to find parents and a family, that’s the main problem; however, you could add several plot layers. Perhaps the child has a broken leg and must go through a couple surgeries, learn to walk again, etc. The leg was broken when she fell off a horse, and the foster family who might adopt her raises race horses; now our MC must learn to like horses, or risk being rejected by the family she wants.
  • Subplot. This is another through-line of the story which focuses on a different character and is tied to the main plot in some way, usually intersecting at several key points. In our orphan-broken leg-scared of horses story above, we could add a couple subplots. The family wants to adopt our heroine, but they need money to do that and they are hoping their premier race horse wins big races and big purses. Unknown to the trainers, though, a stable boy is riding the horse at night and the horse trusts him more than the jockey; he’s the natural person to ride the horse in the next race, but no one believes him. So, he sets out to prove it and in the process, the horse gets a hairline fracture – has to sit out of racing for six weeks. (Of course, this echoes the girl’s broken leg; will the family sell the horse – he loses his family because of a broken leg – or will the girl and stable boy somehow find their way through all this?)

Do you see how both plot layers and subplots enrich the story? Main characters (and sometimes villains) who only have one layer are in danger of being boring. Subplots need some kind of connection to the main story, either parallel to it or, perhaps showing an attitude turned ninety degrees away.

Weaving Together Plot, Plot Layers and Sub-Plots
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass suggests creating a table to intersect these three plot components. Write one column with names, one with setting and one with events. Draw lines between the plot elements trying to connect them. Alternately, write out each plot, subplot or plot layer each with its own column.

For example, settings might be a barn, a hospital and a racetrack. How can you put events from each major plot line/subplot line in the same setting? Can they happen together? Perhaps, when the horse’s hairline fracture is discovered, it happens in the barn. The Girl is there because she’s trying to get over her fear of horses. The foster parents are there because they are concerned about the horse’s limp. It’s a big scene when the stable boy must admit he’s responsible for the injury; the girl overcomes her fears and pets the horse; however, the foster parents realize their hopes of money are evaporating just as the Girl proves she can live on a horse farm anyway, it’s unlikely they can afford to adopt her.

Use what you have built into the story in multiple ways to connect the plot elements.

You have a road map, a car with someone driving, and a destination in mind. Get that journey under way!

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