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Does Your Plot Need a Subplot?

FICTION, Plotting

The beginning of every bestselling novel starts with “What if?” What if a jagged, black, hairline crack suddenly appeared in a clear blue sky?

If you’re a writer, your mind is already racing. You’ve turned every telescope in the world that direction, you’ve sent fighter jets up and you’ve thought of at least three main characters — a scientist to figure out what’s happening, his hysterical wife and perhaps the egotistical head of the research department who just won’t listen.

That, my friends, is how a plot becomes a novel and it is by far the most exciting part of writing fiction. But will we need a subplot?

Just for fun, let’s develop the plot a little more. While your mind is racing, jot down possible scenes. Keep it simple, you’ll have plenty of time to fill in the details later.

Scene 1. The little boy who sees it first. He glances up, his mouth drops and he stares, drawing the attention of the scientist and his wife. Put them somewhere. Are they in a park flying kites, on a busy street in their car or just walking out of a movie theater?

Scene 2. NORAD Command Center orders fighter jets to check it out.

Scene 3. A NATO Conference is interrupted with several people rushing in to whisper in the ears of various world leaders.

Just let your mind fly. Keep jotting things down until you can’t think of anything more. If you’ve written each scene on a different sheet of paper, it’s easy to go back and put them in the order you want them to occur.

Don’t worry about the ending, most of the writers I know don’t figure out the ending until much later. For the sake of this article, we’ll say we’ve thought of an ending. Now concentrate on your three main characters. You have the scientist who has to find the answer while dealing with his hysterical wife and his egotistical boss. You have the process he goes through to find the answer, and it should be enough for several hundred pages and a multitude of scenes. But suppose it’s not enough or suppose the main plot gets bogged down in boring scientific data.

A great writer will also develop a subplot – a fun story line with a new set of characters. Maybe there’s a bag lady who sees the “end of the world” in an altogether different light. Maybe she’s inherited a lot of money and a junior lawyer, in order to keep his job with a prestigious firm, is forced to encounter the street life to find her.

You now have a story within a story. If your reader momentarily loses interest in the main plot, he’ll keep reading to find out if the lawyer finds the bag lady. The subplot can also help slow down a main plot that’s moving too fast. It can give both the writer and the reader time to breath.

Even a romance novel can be given that extra boost with a subplot. So if you’re a new writer, give the idea some careful thought. It might just be the edge your novel needs to put it ahead of all the rest.

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