Notes from Jessica P. Morell on Subplots at WWCON11

Subplots: The Stories Within the Story
Jessica P. Morrell
Willamette Writers Conference 2011
#WWCON11
  • Morrell is a developmental editor
  • Three main elements to fiction
    • Balanced: the action is interspersed, not all in the beginning or end. There is a mix of description and action and dialogue. the protagonist has a starring role.
      • look at published authors to look at their ratios:
        • backstory
        • tightness of dialogue
        • when the first action scene happens
    • Cohesive: written by one person, with a cohesive voice, and flows well. unified, polished sense.
      • often we work on a story over a long period of time, and we change over time. or we get feedback from a critique group, and end up writing by committee. we end up with a patchwork.
    • Good fiction is intimate. Readers want fictional friends. 
      • we feel like we are living in that world.
      • we move in and unpack our suitcase.
      • we know what that world smells like, what the bed feels like.
      • when the story ends, the reader feels lost, they don’t want to leave the characters behind.
      • even if writing in another century or another planet, the reader still have to feel intimate. we need to prove the reality of the setting and the story, so that when the big stuff happens, the villain breaks into with a machinegun, we’ll believe in the story more if we are anchored by lifelike characters and settings.
  • Character traits
    • What do the characters stand for?
    • Their traits must be put to the test by the story.
    • The antagonist too.
  • Something dramatic has to happen early: the brick being thrown through the glass window.
    • an inciting incident.
    • the world and the character have to be thrown off balance, and they struggle to right to the world.
    • from that incident, the character has to make decisions and have goals.
    • they are reluctant to enter the action, and are forced into it.
      • even if they might be: a detective is hired for a case, thinking it is insurance fraud [willing], but it is actually a murder coverup [reluctant].
    • plot points: one way gates that the character enters, and once they do, they can’t go back.
      • in a movie it happens in the first 5 minutes.
      • in a book, it happens in the first 10 to 50 pages.
  • In the midpoint of your story, you will have a major reversal.
    • Reversal of fortune. 
    • the characters are heading in one direction, and then something happens, and they are heading in a totally different direction.
      • example: the titantic. the start is intertwined stories and two families, and a romance. in the second half, the ship is sinking, and now they are fighting for their lives.
    • Learn to notice this in the stories you read.
  • Sensory:
    • write for all the senses: smells, light, shadows, sounds, weather.
    • we react a lot to weather and light.
    • and set up the senses ahead of time: if a car chase has skidding on wet pavement, there should have been a rainstorm in a scene sometime ahead.
    • in the story “stand by me”: look at how they use all the senses to engage
  • Subplots:
    • You need about 3 subplots for a novel.
    • Without subplots, you aren’t writing a novel, you are writing a short story.
    • Subplots need to have a beginning, middle, and end. But not all subplots need to be resolved within the story.
    • But they shouldn’t take over the story.
  • Subplots create resonance.
    • there should be lots of echos.
    • in metaphors, in subplots, in themes.
  • Main subplot involves your main character.
  • You can have one or two subplots about secondary characters.
  • Story about Stephanie Plum series from Janet Evanovich
    • Plum has this idea that she’s going to become a bounty hunter
    • She has to bring in guys on the lam.
    • She doesn’t know what she’s doing half the time. She’s always in over her head.
    • She’s always getting sucked into something bigger than she is.
    • As the series go along, she’s putting more and more people into danger besides herself: criminals show up at her parents house, or blow up her apartment.
    • But in the meantime...
      • She has a sidekick named Lola who used to be a prostitute.
      • She’s always taking Stephanie into more danger.
      • There’s also a subplot about Lola’s lovelife.
    • There’s a subplot about her love life: Joe Morelli and Ranger. One is a policeman, and one is a sexy ex-Marine.
      • In every book she either gets closer to Joe or closer to Ranger.
      • The romance subplot creates suspense and fun. It complicates the characters’ lives.
      • If you are trying to choose between the good guy and the dangerous guy, it’s creating a distraction for the character.
  • Subplots
    • Not random events or details.
    • Specific path of events that tell a story in their own right.
    • Some can stem from the backstory, but mostly take place all within the main story
    • They are connected to the primary storyline. They can’t be disconnected.
    • Before the climax we have the “dark night of the soul”.
      • It’s some point where the characters don’t seem like they are going to make it out alive.
    • The subplots get resolved before the climax.
    • Some of the subplots get smaller and smaller.
    • The A subplot is going to start early, maybe even start the overall story, and it is going to get resolved.
    • The B, C, D subplots are going to start later (but not too late), and they don’t all have to be resolved. By the midpoint, some of the subplots are getting resolved. 
    • They don’t alter the main storyline, but they can complicate it or more it harder to achieve.
    • When the main character is involved in the subplot, then it reveals additional information about how they handle stress, or additional character traits.
    • Examples: someone’s job is on the line, someone is going through divorce, or has partial custody of their kid, or their mother is dying. You want to reveal other characteristics that aren’t going to show up “on the job”. 
    • A character will have contrasting traits:
      • they may be brave, and a fighter, but then they may cry when they are with their kids.
      • we want to have something to surprise the reader with.
    • Titanic: The first plot point is when Rose is standing on the bow of the ship and deciding whether to live or die.
      • she’s marrying this rich guy that she’s not only not in love with, but he is also abusive.
      • her relationship with her mother is another subplot.
      • by the end of the story, when she is in the water, floating among the ice: because she chooses to hide from her mother and her fiance.
    • At the end...
      • she’s come back from being suicidal.
      • she’s come alive again.
      • Now the love of her life, poor Jack (who is blue and looking frozen in the water), is dying.
      • What will she choose? will she choose life again?
  • The best subplots, like flashlights, cast an illuminating light on the main storyline.
    • Flashback are scenes that happen in the past. Most stories have 3 or 4 scenes that introduce the past. If we don’t see that, then the characters don’t come to life.
      • One flashback isn’t enough. It’s a sore thumb that sticks out.
      • No or few flashbacks towards the end of the book.
      • Get your flashbacks over early.
      • What do they show that the main storyline can’t show?
    • At least one of the subplots show be showcasing characters emotional needs, in addition to the main storyline.
    • Themes 
      • Themes tie your book and subplots together.
      • The theme of jurassic park is greed: they are trying to exploit the dinosaurs. the subplots all involve greed as well.... They may even be counter to the theme: e.g. in jurassic park, there is a father figure who is protecting the kids, showing that children/family are more important than money.
      • As you start writing the story, you may not know your theme, but it will emerge.
      • The Accidental Tourist is about grief. the main character is comfortable in his grief [because of his son’s death by murder], and his greatest fear is to love again, to trust people and to let them into his life. he travels without experiencing anything. he goes to england and eats at mcdonalds.
      • What people are most afraid to try next is exactly what you need to throw back at them.
        • A woman whose husband dies in Iraq isn’t going to marry an accountant. she might struggle in a relationship with one, but she’s going to fall in love with someone who is another risk-taker, a firefighter or a policeman, causing her to have to face the fear of losing someone all over again.
    • the subplot will share the dream of the main plot.
    • Read To Kill A Mockingbird - great examples of themes woven in by subplots.
    • Other examples
      • Harry Potter: 
        • all the romances 
        • the dersley’s
        • everything happening at the school
      • Stieg Larson series
        • what’s going on at the magazine, the fate of it.
        • the family that’s come to solve the mystery
        • lizbeth’s experiences
        • from a series standpoint: the subplot of lizbeth’s life in the first book becomes the main story in the second book.
    • in action stories and thrillers, the subplots will affect the main story line more than in a literary story.
  • Subplots can manipulate the energy level of the story:
    • You can lower the temperature if there’s too much stress in the main story.
    • You can raise the temperature if the main story is at a slow point.
    • You can vary the locales, and bring more details in.
    • Subplots can create little delays in relying key information, creating suspense for the main story line.
  • We need layers of worry that are rolled in. the reader can’t just worry about the main character and main issues.
  • And things don’t happen in a vacuum in real life
  • Ingredients of Subplots
    • Keep your tense. Can’t change it.
    • Essential character; main or secondary.
    • Central goal:
    • Conflict: between characters and other.
    • Resolution: most of them will have resolution, but not necessarily all of them. Main subplots must get tied off, the smaller they are, the more they can dangle.
  • Questions
    • Thrillers?
      • For thrillers, one way to work things in is to have things break. Then the character has to fix them. We get to learn about their skills, their past.
        • Thrillers can have 10 to 20% backstory, without a problem.
        • You need to establish forward momentum and stakes early on.
        • You need to have characters off balanced and under stress early on.
    • Are themes an emotion?
      • Some themes are revenge, some loyalty. It’s about humanity, but it doesn’t have to be about emotion. It’s some aspect of human nature.
    • How do I cut? I have 130,000 words.
      • Can you combine some characters? Do we need six best friends?
      • If they are just adding color, get rid of them.
      • If they don’t reflect on your themes, get rid of them.
      • Does it reinforce the dominant traits?
      • Go after it word by word:
        • Get your words tighter.
        • Write in the active voice.
        • Get rid of your modifiers.
        • People clump prepositional phrases together. Don’t do that, especially in action scenes.
Post a Comment