The F Words: Subplots

Subplots are delicious. These little stories within the larger story give readers a great taste of something else: they are breathers from the tension of the main plot. They also show us, indirectly, more about the main character. I’ve written about the importance of subplots before (see The Beguilement of Subplots).

I can’t really say that I think a lot about subplots when I’m writing a book. They seem to come naturally to me. The story is moving along, and something happens and I realize: Oh. This is an important part of the story, in a subplot fashion. And then I think of ways to develop that subplot.

Picture books don’t have subplots. (Or, if they do, the subplots are generally expressed through the illustrations.) Early chapter books might have one subplot per story. Middle Grade novels of 30,000 or 40,000 words might have two subplots. Adult novels . . . my best guess is that four or five subplots are the limit. I’ve read novels with more than four or five subplots, and I find that I start twitching: too many subplots detract from the main story line. I catch myself asking something like, What is this novel about, anyway?

It’s important to understand that each subplot has its own story arc: a conflict with its own beginning, middle, and end. And subplots are usually resolved, mostly in the order in which they were introduced.

But with all those arcs floating around, you don’t want to let them entangle each other, the way clothes hangers might, giving your book an overly complicated, overly involved, or snarled feel. As I learned the hard way, there is such a thing as too many subplots. Thank goodness for my critique group, which pointed this out to me through the first four drafts of The F Words.

Let’s look at how many subplots I had in the first draft:

Cross-country
Working on the school newspaper
Felipe running for class president
Cousin Bianca
Self-defense classes
Hunger strike by parents against the closing of grade school
Relationship with Treva
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole

That’s eight subplots! No wonder the members of my critique group kept mentioning the number of subplots, even going so far as to state they weren’t sure what the main story was.

Okay. I can take a hint. In the second draft, I dropped the school newspaper and the subplot about Felipe’s cousin Bianca. I kept Bianca in the story, but in a different way: without a story arc. Dropping those two, I was down to six subplots.

Still too many. In the third draft I dropped the self-defense classes subplot, which had me down to five subplots.

As I started to write the fourth draft, I felt there was still one subplot too many. Correcting this turned out to be easy, because the hunger strike subplot (based on actual events in the struggles against the closing of Chicago schools) spanned only two chapters in the book. That’s probably enough of a span to constitute a subplot, but it’s also a sign that the subplot is inserted into the plot in one big chunk, and isn’t woven into the story. So the hunger strike subplot had to go.

By the end of the fourth draft, I had four strong subplots in the story:

Cross-country
Felipe running for class president
Ms. Delaney out to get Cole
Relationship with Treva

The first subplot is about sport, the second one is political. The third can go in the political category, or it could go in the same category as the fourth subplot, which is coming-of-age (for lack of a better term). The main plot centers on Cole’s father being in jail and Cole agreeing to write poetry for Mr. Nachman: the first of these is political, the second is literary.

Architect Mies van de Rohe gave us the statement, “Less is more” as a way of looking at art. The less there is cluttering up the work, be it a building or a novel, the more impact there is as the intent of the piece shines through.

Analyzing the plot and subplots in this way, with a less-is-more approach, I felt I had a strong story going — and in the case of subplots it was subtraction, not addition, which helped me make that story stronger.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

One thought on “The F Words: Subplots

  1. I love Brandon Sanderson’s way of weaving subplots into his story. He does it like programming, and places each subplot within their brackets, which span across different times throughout his novel. It’s still something I have to work at though, as they don’t come naturally to me. Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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