There are no submarines in this post. I just thought it sounded cool.
And, it alliterated. Okay for a blogpost, perhaps, but in your novel… be careful. Such language only works in dialogue, out of the mouth of your characters.
The other tw0… sub-plots and sub-text… this is the stuff that lends depth to our stories, that haunts and compels as it adds tension to the procedings. Always good thing. The sign of a confident and skilled pro, which agents and editors love to see.
Knowing the Difference
A “sub-plot” is a dramatic confrontation between a need and antagonist obstacles. Just like your main plot.
It can involve your hero, or it can involve someone else. If the latter, the sub-plot needs to collide with the hero’s story arc at some point, probably in your Part 4 resolution.
Example: a guy goes undercover for the Feds, infiltrating a ponzi scheme of Madoff-like proportions. To get in, he seduces the Bad Guy’s daughter (relax, she’s 24 and hot). But… as this kicks off, he’s struggling with his own primary relationship. He’s engaged, and his fiance isn’t happy. Will she tolerate this? Especially since she’s hired someone to spy on him? He has to juggle both balls without dropping either, thus putting both needs at risk.
That’s the sub-plot. The main plot is the undercover gig. The girlfriend arc/sub-plot will eventually impact it because she plans on confronting him with the “evidence” that he’s cheating on her.
So what’s sub-text?
Sub-text can be described as the sociology, the culture, of your story. Culture, with its norms, expectations and consequences, influences the behaviors and actions that take place within it.
In this example, the sub-text is the knowledge that the girlfriend is getting closer to blowing our hero’s cover. Which means everything he does right brings him closer to getting outed, and possibly killed.
A story can have multiple sub-texts, just as it can have multiple themes. They are often the very same thing.
An arena is sub-text. If you set a story in a nunnery, for example, that culture is sub-text. In fact, the whole prospect of religious devotion is the thematic sub-text of the story, and what you write needs to align.
Use that term to wrap your head around this: thematic sub-text.
The DaVinci Code? All sub-text. A romance? Depends on sub-text to work. A mystery? Often a social force that impacts either the bad guy’s movitation or the hero’s quest.
The NaNoWriMo influence on sub-text.
You should have both a sub-plot and some sub-text in your story. Which is to say, relative to the latter, that your story will benefit from a thematic realm, which is a hypothesis or an explanation that relates to reality (yours and mine, as readers) and becomes the sub-text for how your story unfolds.
But you only have 30 days. And sub-text isn’t something that just happens. It’s the product of intention. Which means, it’s something you can plan. It’s the color of the ink (analogy alert) you use when you print out your story blueprint.
When you shoot for a sub-plot, the sequential milestones hover around the same targets as your main plotline.
There should be less complexity with your sub-plot. Don’t overthink or over-write it, just make sure you aren’t solving the sub-plot-centric problem in the first half of the story.
Sub-plots are often (as with the previous example) something going on a character’s life. Something with stakes. It needs to be set-up in your Part 1 chapters, and your Plot Point One should impact this arc, as well.
Sub-plots are often relational-based when the main plot-line isn’t. And vice versa. If you’re looking for a sub-plot, give your hero a life-partner who is stirring things up, thus complicating the hero’s journey relative to the main conflict.
Just be careful that your sub-plot isn’t so far out there — an arc that is unrelated, or unlikely — that it smacks of contrivance.
Example: your hero’s boss is under investigation for defrauding the company, an arc that parallels your main plotline wherein the hero is seeking to fix a broken marriage.
An effective sub-plot needs to relate either to the hero’s arc by exerting some sort of pressure, or an impending collision with the primary plot-line in your Part 4. In this example, you could make that happen by having the boss attempting to pin this fraud on your hero, thus impacting his ability to accomplish the main goal.
If you can pants that… you’re a genius. I hope you are.
The smart money plans it, which is also a genius strategy.
As for sub-text…
… go for an arena setting, which can include a culture, an off-stage source of pressure and influence, or even an inner demon. Catholic guilt… a great sub-text. Closeted sexual preferences… ditto. Having a fatal illness that presents a ticking clock… same. The possibilities are everywhere. This is life, and life is complicated.
A sub-plot can be, and should be, a complication.
The sub-text of this post? Imbue your novel with more than your primary plotline and character arc if you want it to become good enough to attract readers. Create a secondary source of conflict and interest… and you’ll not only add words, you”ll add depth.
And if you’re writing about submarines… gee, what a coincidence. Which — here’s another tip — has no place in your story. Coincidence translates to story killer.
A Final Thought… on Voice
We haven’t discussed that much in this series. It’s tough to learn, tougher to teach, reasonable but still challenging to coach one-on-0ne, and almost impossible to generically position in terms of guidelines. The best way for anyone to work on their voice, or coach one… is to work hands-on with someone’s prose.
Voice is like a singer’s ability to do more than carry a tune. Everybody sounds good in the shower… not so much at the audition for X-Factor or Idol.
Prose is always in context to story. The tonality of the prose needs to synch with the tonality of the story. That’s why detective mysteries are usually snarky, historicals are often eloquent, and thrillers clean and efficient.
Clean and efficient is always a safe bet. Unless you’re writing in first person, then clean and efficient can quickly become boring. Infuse your first person voice with personality and attitude, keep it minimal in third person.
Be inspired by the voice and style of writers you love, but never imitate them. Find your own voice, and you’ll find yourself embracing stories that fit it, not the other way around. Nelson Demille reads like Nelson Demille in everything he publishes.
Over-writing, the obvious attempt at eloquence, is a red flag for agents and editors, and readers. There’s a reason we don’t seem much of this on the bookstore shelves… it gets edited and polished at the editorial level. Over-writing will get you rejected before Page 2 is reached.
Adjectives are like drugs. They’re addictive, and they can smother the life out of a sentence, even if they’re fun to swallow. Use them judiciously. Take pause before using any adjective, ask yourself if the crustiest old cynical editor gulping midnight cocktails over your manuscript against a deadline would tolerate your choice. Less is more here.
One more to go. Getting nervous? Excited? That’s good. You’re about to give birth to something that’s already alive and kicking… especially if you’ve planned for it.
I plan on assembling this series, with embellishment and the linked reference posts, into an ebook. I’m also going to include the entire manuscript from my novel, “Bait and Switch,” to use as a guinea pig and reality check to help bring these articles to life. I’m thinking $7.95, the price of a mass market paperback. Let me know if you have thoughts or feedback on this plan.
Thanks for playing. Now get ready to kill it.