Sunday 4 December 2011

Sub Routines

Well hello again, blogging friends. First off, a confession that things have not progressed so well on the book this week. My 17-year-old stepson came out of hospital last weekend after an operation on his knees, however he picked up an infection while he was under - fluid went into his lungs - so he's been on antibiotics and has been pretty poorly. He's getting there now but will probably be off school all next week again while he finishes the course.

Today was a good day though - we took the kids to see Santa and got our first sprinkling of snow (nothing traffic-stopping - yet). We got Andrew all wrapped up and he had a great time. Still don't feel Christmassy, though - bah, humbug...

So, onto the topic of today's post. You might have guessed from the terrible pun in the title (and the picture) that I'm going to talk about subplots. I guess they're something I'm still trying to work out how to handle. Last week, when I was making better headway, I introduced two subsidiary characters apart from the main two. This was at about 13000 words in, which might seem a bit late - but I was really involved in setting the main story up and establishing those characters. When I was writing my first novel, I threaded through a lot more subplot elements on the second draft, once I knew the whole story.

If I was going to offer advice on the subject, I would say that subplots should always be related to the main story. Sounds obvious, but there are many examples where this is not the case. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck includes many stories taken from his own family's history which have nothing to do with the main plot. I have nothing against these stories - some are charming, others funny or tragic - but they slow things down and I feel might have been better as a separate book.

Subplots should offer clues to how minor characters relate to the main action, how they see things and so on. They can have their own stories, but there should be enough there for perceptive readers to see how they link to the central thrust, without being blindingly obvious. A difficult balance to achieve.

For these reasons, I think it's OK to write a lot of subplot material on a second draft, as I did. To know how all the jigsaw pieces fit together and lay them all down on a first draft seems to me an amazing feat. I wonder how many writers can do this?

And they're not always necessary. A book like Room contains zero subplots as everything is seen from the perspective of the five-year-old boy - having that one voice throughout makes for a great intensity. But multilayered books can, obviously, be very satisfying.

So how do you approach subplots? I reckon it depends on whether you know your story inside-out before you start. What do you think?