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Thursday, January 17, 2013

It Is A Truth Universally Acknowledge That All The Great Novels Have Subplots

Forgive my abuse of beautiful Jane Austen quote, but it is the truth. Every bestseller out there that I've read (which does exclude a few with sparkling undead and men named Grey) have subplots. Think Dresden, LOTR, Price of the Stars, Lost Fleet, or any of the dozens of amazing, re-readable books out there. 

You know which books don't have subplots? The ones that never make it past the midlist (with some really weird exceptions).

I've developed a not-recommended habit of picking up the early works of bestselling authors. Unless you are an author: Don't Do This. It will make you cry. I'm not sure most authors should do this, it might make you cry too, but there's something very educational in looking at a bestsellers work from twenty years ago and comparing it to what they have on the shelf today.

What I'm seeing in a lot of debut novels is a lack of subplots. The main characters are established, the minor characters are established, the goal is given, and ... that's it. There are no side quests, no jolting bumps in the road, maybe a few curve balls but never the mini-story that is the hallmark of the subplot.

The big red flag for this has become the Training Montage. An unknown or weak fighter joins the group/fleet/hero/vampire roller derby team and must be taught how to be awesome. In a bestseller this training happens while someone tries to stab the person in the back, or happened before the novel opened, or is summed up by, "After six weeks of intense training I felt drained, but I was able to keep up on the nine mile death march."

Another red flag is the fantasy favorite travelogue as the characters walk for six months to cross a continent.

Chapters and chapter and chapters of nothing happening. No conflict. No fights. No information gained that couldn't have been summed up in a matter of sentences. I know authors are trying not to Tell (evil, boos, hiss!) but showing is not an excuse to be lazy or boring. Never, ever be boring.

The main plot should never be neglected, but there are times where it will reach a natural low point. This is where the subplots become so essential. Something needs to happen while the characters walk from Point A to Point B. A new enemy appears, someone betrays something, a romance starts, there's a spy! Pick something!

Although, be wary because romances as a subplot are better woven into multiple subplots than left alone. Romance plots need a partner or they sound weird. That's just my opinion of course, and depends a lot on the genre, but I like a romance plot mixed with the other plots because it tends to come across as a naturally developing relationship rather than BAM! Eyes Across The Crowded Room It's LOVE!!!

Quick And Dirty Tips For Creating Subplots
- Not everyone should love the hero.
- The more antagonists you have the more conflicts you create.
- Real life should happen to the characters, even if they are saving the world they have jobs and responsibilities.
- Give the character interests and friends outside of work.
- Multiple point of views aren't a bad thing if you know how to juggle them.
- It all needs to come together at the end.
- Not every antagonist needs to be vanquished at the end.
- - Give us more than one character to love-- (from Diantha)
-- Make each and every character count -- (from Diantha)

Have you got anything else to add?


  1. I'd add that the world you've built continues on independent of the MC's presence. Sometimes they are around for events, sometimes they aren't, but the world at large doesn't only exist and operate when your viewpoint character is onstage.

    1. Very true. In most of my favorite novels the cities are a character in their own right. The world should have a feel and personality independent of the MC.

  2. Wow, I loved this article and agree with everything you said. I have consistently complained about the lack of imagination and effort I have been coming across in my literature. Bottom line: authors have become lazy. They want the success without the work. Love the Quick and Dirty Tips. I think multi POV is very rewarding, and a tactic I employ myself because it adds so much depth to the storyline. And yes! Antagonists create their own plots! And in the end, not every single one of them needs to meet a grisly end. I would just add: "Give us more than one character to love" and "Make each and every character count." For me, characters are everything. If I don't like them, there's a good chance the book won't make any kind of positive impression on me.

    1. You can make a story work with a single POV, but it's hard and I find myself veering away from the first person books unless I know the author can make it work. I've seen it well done in several urban fantasy novels and I can think of a couple of sci-fi authors who have the knack.

      I love your additions. I'm a fan of minor characters so I'm thrilled when the characters on the side line are fleshed out. :)

  3. I was definitely guilty of this in my first few novels! I think it came from being very single-minded about getting the story told, so I completely forgot to include subplots. I've gotten better at it, but I still feel my stories tend to be a bit simplistic, especially compared to the intricate stories that I tend to love most.

    1. I think all stories start there. Children's and midgrade literature rarely includes subplots, they don't have the word count for anything that complex. But when you're writing books for an older audience you need the subplots, and you learn to weave them in by reading and writing constantly.

  4. Every plot has an arc. In your opinion, do the best subplots shadow the main story arc, or should their timing be different?

    1. I think the subplots should be hitting their highs when the main plot is coming to a natural low.

      The MC is on the run from the Big Bad, they're crossing the marshlands... and this is a natural low for the main plot, but this is where the subplot of Frodo's ring addiction, or a twist in the romance, or the sudden betrayal of a dear friend hits a high point.

  5. This is an amazingly insightful post. May I respectfully request for your permission to re-blog?

    1. You can reblog with a link back and proper accreditation. Just let people know who wrote it and where to find me. :)

      Thank you for asking.