First off, thanks to everyone who commiserated about the computer crash. I now have all my critical data back (including my in-process Skyrim game! Very important, right up there with the email archives, the address book, and the calendar. Books? Those were never the problem; I’m paranoid about backing up work-in-process, finished work, copyedited versions…) So I’m totally back in business.
On to the writing stuff. Today I thought I’d take a shot at a problem that caught my eye in an enormously fat, complicated novel I read recently: handling subplots. The book was engaging and competently done, overall, but halfway through I started feeling a little odd. At first, I thought it was a subtle problem with the pace, but the scenes all seemed to be moving along just fine. I finally realized that the trouble was with the subplots.
As I said, this was a fat, complicated novel. Meaning, lots of subplots. There were several romances, two or three different political plots, a bad guy converting to the good guys, two sets of long-lost relatives, a secret birthright, and a whole raft of interrelated action plots helping the build-up to the climax. The book started with the background and the first action-plot, and just as the action was passing its first big peak, the author introduced the romantic interest. We then had a couple of chapters of the romance, at which point the first big political plot showed up. Politics occupied the next few chapters, and just as the big political problem was solved, the action moved into its next phase. And so on.
Each subplot or plot arc would be almost finished when the author started dropping hints about the next, completely different, subplot or arc. By the time the current arc was disposed of, the next one was bubbling along nicely and ready to take off without giving Our Heroes more than a few minutes of down time.
It should have been gripping. It wasn’t. And the reason for it was threefold: first, the pattern quickly became predictable; second, the author was so locked in to the pattern that she/he kept it up right to the end of the book (yes, that means that in the last two chapters, right before the villain was defeated for good and all, the author introduced a new plot…which of course was never wrapped up. I wanted to spit nails; that scene would have been the perfect opener for a sequel, but as something dropped on the reader at the end of a book, coming out of nowhere, it really didn’t work for me); and finally, I couldn’t believe that all these subplots would come along in quite such tidy duckling fashion, one after another, with just enough overlap that they didn’t look like a bunch of short stories strung together.
Basically, the author was focusing on one thing at a time: first the setup, then an action arc, then the first romance, etc. Now, some things really had to happen in order; the villain had no particular reason to kidnap the heroine until after the hero fell in love with her, for instance. But I just couldn’t buy that both the villain and the evil politicians were going to hunker down and do nothing for two weeks while the hero and heroine fell in love, or that the sidekick and his love interest would go through several hair-raising adventures showing no interest whatsoever in each other, then have their two-week romance while everything else was suddenly on hold.
In real life, everything is happening all the time. National politics didn’t get put on hold for four days while I got my computer back up and running; neither did my exercise program or the people coming to install my new water heater. And in fact, my computer got fixed as fast as it did thanks in large part to some timely tips from my walking buddy.
Subplots need to weave around each other in the same way. Some things have to happen in order or in totally different and unrelated places, but there are an awful lot of things that can overlap for more than one scene or ten minutes. The politicians and villains and evil corporations will be plotting and making moves all the time, separately or together, whether the hero is taking a well-earned vacation or not.
Once the writer grasps this, the problem becomes keeping track of what everyone is doing and then figuring out how to bring it into the story so that one doesn’t have subplot lumps. I’ll try to talk more about that on Sunday.