Say, if you could shoot me one of those these days, I’d really appreciate it. Wait, wait. Go back and read that sentence. Then do it again. Read it again, this time keeping in mind that I’m referring to the writing comments above, not bullets. Hopefully we now have some kind of…arrangement. (I just proved that I can both read your mind demonstrate why concise writing is so important in fiction, all the while creating a six-lined paragraph of little to no importance)
(Plus, I confused you. Handily.)
So, what were we talking about?
Well, nothing. At least, not quite yet. I had all the time in the world to introduce my topic like any marginally normal writer, but I dawdled on about some nonsense. Looks like I’m gonna have to retake matters into my own hands. (Whose hands was it in before? Ah, but that’s the mystery…one you may never know…)
Annnnyyyyyyyyyywayyyyyyyy, we’re back with another article! This one about writing fiction! (That is, if you couldn’t tell) Today’s blog addresses a bit of a rabbit hole, but it’s still important to get right if you want to hold onto a reader for more than a few pages with a title page like Way of Kings. So strap in; this is gonna get bumpy.
In the book By the Great Horn Spoon! (Exemplary piece of literature, I definitely recommend it), Sid Fleischman doesn’t launch into the overarching plot (Jack and Praiseworthy making it to California and striking gold, subsequently saving his aunt’s house and property) right away. He basically frames the larger plot in a kind of well-established limbo until he can square away the present problem (that means Jack and Praisworthy must first participate in the Sea Raven’s race to San Francisco).
However, this is admittedly a side plot that takes up a third of the novel with not a lot of relevant plot points that come with it. So why didn’t this book get thrown in the trash the minute the editors got ahold of it instead of winning awards and making the author famous? Let’s find out.
(Slight Spoilers are going to follow; be warned) So, let’s take a look at the story itself: the tale begins with a seemingly irrelevant plot point: Jack and Praiseworthy have lost their money to pay for passage on a ship, and as a result have had to stowaway. Immediately, Praiseworthy suggests that they tell the captain their story about the stolen money…and the thief that he suspects is aboard this very ship.
Right away, we can see that Fleischman isn’t mincing words at all. While it may seem that he’s using a subplot as a delaying tactic, he gets to establishing character right away. We see that Praiseworthy is honorable and straightforward, but also a trifle naïve. We see that Jack is resourceful and confident, but obviously wouldn’t be much without his faithful butler.
So even though the Y plot may not be very important to the plot, it still serves to reveal character. Take your cue from this: when the plot has ground to a standstill, fill the gap with character reveal and growth. Kurt Vonnegut used to say: “Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.” Every sentence that doesn’t do that is a weak sentence and should be cut.
A short note on not revealing one’s hand too early: backstory should not be revealed all at once. At least, usually. Certainly you should never dump it all at the beginning. You want to save the best character reveals for the lulls in the story, when you can drop some powerful truths on the reader while we’re away from the action for a while.
So the first tip is to make use of your time away. Never use a subplot just as a delaying tactic: unless they’re very small and almost insignificant, the reader will catch on very quickly. Because the subplot generates a hiccup in the main plot, fill that absence with interesting character interactions.
Well, I suppose you can’t carry a story just on force of character. You need another tactic to get your readers interested in the subplot. Another thing that occurs during young Jack and Praiseworthy’s initial journey is the capture and escape of Cut-Eye Higgins, a malicious Outlaw. This sets the stage for Higgins’ antagonism later throughout the novel.
In addition, one of the other passengers by the name of Buckbee has a map to a gold mine that he foolishly flaunts in front of everyone else. It’s eventually stolen; no surprise there. So why set up these two seemingly unrelated plot points, and how do they tie in with the rest of the story? Well, I think you can already guess: Higgins stole the map when he made his escape. This causes Buckbee to make an alliance with Jack and Praiseworthy, as the man is sick and can’t travel. The deal goes like this: if Jack and Praisworthy get Buckbee’s map back, he’ll freely share in the profits of the found gold.
This greatly shifts the main plot of the main story, but it sprouted from two seemingly small points in a subplot of all places. So if you need to keep your subplot interesting, feel free to spice it up with some relevant setups that will help you out later. The reader will thank you when they pay off.
By far, the biggest mistake I see with subplots is that they don’t accomplish anything. I’m all for making subplots that make the story longer, but only if you can fill them with things relevant to the story. If you always make subplots (as well as elements within the subplots themselves) relevant, it will be interesting.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!