Subplots and characters and arcs … oh my!


Coming up with the main plot for my first novel was fun and relatively straightforward: setting the scene and the characters, establishing a central conflict that builds up to a climax, and ultimately some kind of resolution.

Naively, I hadn’t realised there were so many defined techniques for all the other different elements of a story. I might have inadvertently created subplots and arcs for my secondary characters, but I didn’t necessarily know I was doing it.

The Wizard of Oz is a classic analogy used to understand the main plot versus its subplots. The main plot is that a tornado carries Dorothy off to the land of Oz, and with the help of a scarecrow, a tin man, a lion, (and some ruby shoes) she persuades a wizard to send her home. The subplots include: killing the wicked witch, and the quests for the scarecrow’s brain, the tin man’s heart and the lion’s courage.

But how do I weave supporting subplots throughout my story, making sure they have relevance and impact? And exactly how many subplots should I have?

I think that I have found the answers to both these questions in the development of my characters. The more I defined my secondary characters, the more I could imagine how their role was impacting the storyline, either in a positive or adverse way. And as the subplots and characters deepened, I found myself asking questions like What length is Clive prepared to go to for revenge? and What impact are Joseph’s actions having on Dara’s motivations?

Subplots develop characters, and characters develop subplots

It also works the other way around. Donald Maas – in his NY Times Bestselling book Writing the Breakout Novel - refers to a subplot as a way to add depth to secondary characters that bring them to life. So subplots develop characters, and characters develop subplots.

But not all subplots are equal and some plots have more meaning than others. I like Patricia C Wrede’s metaphor where she refers to the subplots as “stuff” that orbit around the main planet plotline:

“The ones that are tied really tightly to the main plotline are the man-made satellites in low orbit that wouldn’t exist without the main plotline, but that aren’t strictly necessary to its existence. The more independent plotlines are different sizes of moons, and you could look at the really complex, closely interrelated multi-character subplots as the rings of Saturn.”

But what about arcs? Does every character need one?

The purpose of an arc is to move a character (or situation) from one state to another. Creating arcs for my secondary characters helped me to understand their beginning, middle, and end states along the story timeline. With a bit of tweaking of the scenes and chronology of events, I started to see the points of action, reaction, and confrontation between the characters. This gave credence to the main plot and made the subplots more interesting and dramatic.

Now I just need to make sure I don’t get too carried away. It’s all very well having a heap of dramatic subplots, but I need to keep my eye on the main plot. As Anton Chekhov famously advised “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story”. Maybe I’ll leave that for the editing stage …

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