August 28, 2013

Sub plots in a novel

Dear M,

I wish I had known earlier about sub-plots, you know. My first novel would have been a lot better if I had. But I know about it now and I have started noticing sub-plots in many books I read. So I guess it is better late than never.

I think in my novel there are a few sub-plots, appearing like thin veils. But those could have been made to appear much sharper and finer if I had known that these were 'sub-plots', and if I had known how to work on them.

For one thing, without sub-plots, the story sounds very linear. If you are writing a very heavy, action-packed plot-based novel (already running to 500+ pages), then probably there is no space for sub-plots. You do not deviate to tell people about other insignificant things that passed by the highway.

What are sub-plots exactly? They're things that happen on the side, that enrich the main flow of the story. Either it adds a dash of colour to your characters or to your plot, or it takes the reader into an arc, telling him about important events that affected people. In a recent book I read, there had been interlacing of politics of the time (the story was set fifty years into the past). It had nothing to do with the theme or the main plot of the story. But because of the politics, secondary characters changed and this in turn affected the main characters and the way they made their choices. Without the historical intervention, things would have been a lot different. And yet, if you ask, is the history the main theme or plot of the story? The answer is No.

When I began reading about sub-plots, one of the articles I came across was introducing sub-plots to increase word count. That sounds crass, but have you any idea how word-starved some of our stories can be? Our most brilliant idea (in the beginning stages of our novel-writing career) could be expanded to about 50K of words. There are exceptions of course, and I speak from experience. And these 50K words are as straightforward as "The man was dead - the detective came - he spotted a ring near the dead body - the ring was the fiancée's - the fiancée was the killer." Apart from the unpredictability you can offer to your tale, you can also develop things on the side, you can develop the dead man's relation with the fiancée, the fiancée's past or relationships, even the detective's personal problems. Though, strictly these may not be the reasons for the murder.

I don't know if the examples I have given above are any good. I have a feeling they aren't. It is one thing to understand, it is quite another to explain. But I am sure you have understood something, and that is always a good place to start!

As for me, I am going to look for - and inject, if needed - important sub-plots into my stories.


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