Navigating the Subplot Waterways

Katherine Longshore 6 Tuesday, March 22, 2011
I’m just finishing a second round of revisions with my editor.  The middle section of my novel was a little flabby, and the pace slowed through several scenes.  My editor highlighted these scenes, made one or two comments (like, “This scene focuses on details that don’t really move the story forward.  Can you find ways to tighten it?” or, more succinctly, “Cut?”) and left the rest up to me.

Because I’m in this story for the history, I like to throw in as much fun historical detail as possible.  But occasionally I go off on a tangent.  Like three pages about Henry VIII’s niece, Margaret Douglas.  Who doesn’t even show up in the rest of the book.

If there’s one thing the editorial process has taught me, it’s that tangents are fun and the information in them is interesting.  But not all of them are necessary.  In fact, a short, additional subplot can slow the entire middle section of your book to a crawl.  So I’ve been busy killing some darlings and putting the rest on a Biggest Loser sort of diet.  Tough love.

Subplots add richness to a novel.  They add depth to characters and greater meaning to themes and present beautiful little “aha!” moments to the readers.  But I continually need to remind myself not to let them mask my true story or overshadow the central character.  And don’t let them slow you down.

As a counterpoint to revision (and a carrot for when I finish a difficult section) I’ve been reading ALL CLEAR (an historical time-travel novel for adults) by Connie Willis.  She is a master subplotter.  Those “aha!” moments?  Happen all the time.  But then, what you think is a subplot suddenly spills into the plot itself, like a creek feeding a river.  And it heightens the rush to the inevitable conclusion.  Just by reading Willis’s incredibly well-crafted novel, I have caught a glimpse of how I want my own writing to be.

I need to find the source of the creek and direct it surely toward the river, not allowing for meandering or eddies.  I need to remove the stagnant pools altogether.  And I need to focus each character’s journey along the waterways, so they aren’t swept away or left behind.

I still have a lot to learn about subplots.  I’ve done my best with writing and mapping and character arcs.  Every day I practice.  And thankfully, I have the Muses and their amazing insight. 

It’s a wild ride.  Sometimes, you just have to grab the gunwales and enjoy the journey.


Revision is quite a journey, isn't it? Must say that, although the process was challenging, I was truly happy with the revised version of my ms (especially the ending) and grateful to our editor for pushing me to understand the how and why of every line I wrote. Thanks for sharing!

Great post! Yep, subplots are a hard thing to navigate, especially in YA where they want things to move fast, fast, fast! Which really just means a tighter novel all around, but it can be so painful to take the hack-knife to moments of subplot you love!

You're absolutely right, Stasia, about how wonderful revision can be -- I do LOVE how much better the book is now. Our editor is pretty amazing.

And Heather, yes! I think you've nailed it with YA needing to be fast -- subplots need to be there, they need to be intricate, but in no way can they be slow! And in the end, a tighter novel is a better read.

I'm definitely bookmarking your blog. Thanks for sharing this post!

I just found your blog! Hooray! I've gotten some decent interest in my first YA manuscript, but got a crushing rejection from an agent who said it lacked narrative cohesion and drive. I said, Huh? Then I had a very smart woman/big YA reader/high school teacher read it, and she said, "Too many subplots". I have to chop some out. I think they all "move", but there's just too much to detract from the main action. Or maybe they don't "feed into the river" (great analogy, by the way) like they should. I'm pulling my hair out over here. I've just got to get this right. But there will be lots of blood, guts and tears. Ugh.

Thank you for joining us, A.M. and All Adither! And good luck with your subplots, All Adither. I had to do quite a bit of darling killing recently, but I believe it did streamline the book and make it a better read. Keep at it -- what one agent finds too complicated, another might think is the next big thing!

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