NaNoWriMo #30: On Sub-Plots, Sub-text and Submarines

Unless you are an MFA who doesn’t get out much, you probably know a lot about plot.

Plot is the primary dramatic engine of your story. The dramatic question in play.

As such, plot becomes the primary dramatic engine of your story. The linear quest of your hero. The source of antagonism and heroism and ultimate resolution. It is the stage upon which character is revealed and explored. Without a hero navigating within a plot, a story becomes a biography of fictional beings.

Plot is what gets resolved. Possibly among other things… but at least that.

But of course, other elements are in play with in a good story. 

Subplots and subtext — very different things, both equally critical to a successful story — are raw grist for depth and thematic resonance in our stories, always adding context and tension. They are the sign of a confident and skilled pro, which agents and editors and readers love to see.

But you need to know the difference between them.

A subplot is another layer of the collision between need/desire and obstacle/antagonism within the story. And thus, another layer of dramatic tension.

It can involve your hero, or it can involve someone else. If the latter, the subplot needs to collide with the hero’s story arc at some point in the latter quartile of the book. If they never collide, what you have is a story with dual dramatic arcs, and just possibly, the explanation for why it doesn’t live up to your original ambitions for it.

If the subplot involves the hero, then it needs to ultimately relate to the hero’s primary quest (the main plot), in a way that becomes catalytic to it. For example, if a detective is seeking to learn the identity of the killer (main plot) but can’t function because he knows his wife is having an affair (subplot), the two levels of drama need to come together in a way that empowers or at least informs the hero’s choices and behaviors.

If the latter, the subplot needs to collide with the hero’s story arc at some point in the latter quartile of the book. If they never collide, what you have is a story with dual dramatic arcs, and just possibly, the explanation for why it doesn’t live up to your original ambitions for it.

Because at the end of the story, the reader needs to feel as if they have consumed one story. Just one. Even if they never merge until the last page (not recommended), it was one story after all.

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.

Sounds a lot like a sub-plot, right? 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 is sub-text?

Sub-text can be described as the sociology, the culture, of your story. Culture, with its norms, expectations and consequences, influences and imbues 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 in the pursuit of a resolution to the primary plot problem 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 almost always sub-text.  If you set a story in a nunnery, for example, that culture is sub-textual. 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 motivation or the hero’s quest.

Shoot for subplot and subtext 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.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

11 Responses to NaNoWriMo #30: On Sub-Plots, Sub-text and Submarines

  1. I’m really glad you posted about this. So far I don’t have enough scenes, and I think it’s mainly because of a lack of a subplot. This will really help me come up with something, hopefully before Nano begins. Thanks.

  2. Good idea! I think that’s a good price, especially with the entire text of Bait and Switch included as part of it. Some people will already have it, others won’t. In that form you’ll probably also go back and edit these essays a bit too.

    I think it’ll fly.

  3. Shawn Raiford

    Excellent idea! And all for the price of a burger? Pfft!

  4. In a heart-beat! Consolation for missing the workshop this weekend….

  5. Wrap this sucker into an mp3 file. I’m buyin’ that!

  6. Can’t wait for the book! Your article helped to clarify the direction of certain characters! I had bot sub-plots and sub-texts and didn’t even know it! Thank you

  7. I loved “Bait and Switch”. It alone is worth $7.95 – and so is this NaNoWriMo series. Go for it!

  8. Good one, Larry.
    You always include so much key know-how, not to mention entertaining quips and rather amazing analogies.

    I think your idea of an ebook from your NaNoWriMo series is a good idea.

    Especially if you include specific examples to the point from your novel. And by that I mean, explain your thinking your thinking as an author, your considerations of your reader’s reactions, and what you sought to achieve–this with each or most examples.

    Which would be helpful to us blog readers and struggling novelists.

    Thanks as always for your meaty advice.

    P.S. I have been thinking of sub-text as mainly related to dialogue. Your more expansive definition was enlightening.

    P.S.S. I am in favor of occasionally imitating a writer I admire briefly–not to sound like her or to imitate her ongoing, like a painter making a copy of a Leonardo painting–but as an exercise to stretch my stylistic technique range.

  9. I already have your book Story Engineering and I find it as well as these NanoWriMo series of posts immensely helpful. $7.95 will be a bargain!

  10. Hey Larry–two things:
    1) Can the main plot of a novel be the relationship between two characters (like in 500 (Days) of Summer)? The reason I ask is because I was told the other day that a story’s antagonist cannot be the love interest. That the love interest has to be a subplot. But I am finding examples all over that prove the opposite, so now I am confused. HELP!!

    2) I love the idea of putting all these posts into an eBook. I think $7.95 is a good price. Can’t wait to buy it and read it!

  11. Holly

    So thankful for your posts & “Bait & Switch” is an awesome idea!!