Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes on Plotting and Subplots

Last week, I appeared on a panel at Thrillerfest called "HOW DO YOU THICKEN THE PLOT? Subplots and How to Make Them Shine," which was moderated by Wendy Corsi Staub, with fellow panelists Mark Greaney, JL Hughes, Chris Knopf, Jeremy Robinson, Emily Winslow. You can also buy audio of this panel or other Thrillerfest panels from ITW.

Jennifer Hillier also posted a lot of great coverage of the conference, complete with photos.  Some of the photos are of famous people.  Most of the photos are of Jennifer.  A few of them are of me.

I know that technical advice is pretty popular, and the panel seemed pretty well attended for a 9 am show, with a lot of people taking notes. So for anyone who might be interested, I'm going to post the written notes I prepared for the discussion.  This isn't fleshed out yet into an essay, so it's a little rough, but might nonetheless be useful.  I may write something more elaborate along these lines at some point in the future.  For anyone who was in attendance, there are some points here I didn't get to discuss on the panel, and for those who were not, here's some free writing advice!

General rules about subplots:
A subplot is a secondary narrative strand within the main narrative of the novel.  It should have a discrete beginning, middle and end.  Subplots can serve an expositional purpose, as well as developing or expanding on a novel’s central themes. 
A subplot should have a clear purpose in the overall narrative.  It should function to reveal crucial information, raise the stakes on the central plot, and reinforce key themes.
A subplot should not be digressive and pointless.  It should tie back into the main narrative rather than burning out in a way that feels like a waste of a reader’s time.  You should not try to add a subplot to pad out a story that falls short of novel-length.
A subplot should always feel urgent and relevant.  If you’re going to hang a significant subplot on a secondary character, that character needs to be somebody readers will want to spend time with.  Many authors pause in the middle of significant plot movement, often after a cliffhanger, to check in on dull secondary characters who are doing boring things.   Don’t do this. Perspective changes can kill your narrative momentum.  If you need to impart some important piece of information, find another way to do it that doesn’t give the reader a nice place to put the book down.
Alfred Hitchcock said that the “Macguffin,” the quest-object, isn’t really important, and the same observation was a major theme of Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon.”  In almost all commercial fiction, the killer will be identified, the terrorist plot will be foiled, and the princess will get saved.  Readers feel cheated by anticlimax and anticatharsis, and telling a story in which the hero fails his primary objective is almost like breaking a contract with the reader.  A qualified success or a pyrrhic victory is as dark as we typically get to be.
As a result, we have to interest ourselves primarily with the journey between the set-up and the inevitable resolution, and try to build in some interesting surprises and reversals along the way.  Subplots are very important, because they can have unhappy or ambiguous resolutions, and, as a result, they can make the story more textured or complicated, and less predictable.

Common examples of subplots in thrillers:
1.                   Early in the story, a protagonist may have a secondary conflict which he will resolve decisively and without significant complications.  This serves to demonstrate that he is capable and resourceful.  This establishes his heroic credentials before he begins to suffer setbacks as he tests himself against the main problems of the central plot.
2.                  Early in the story, the antagonist might also have a secondary conflict, either with a secondary, doomed hero or one of his own henchmen who has failed or betrayed him somehow.  He’ll handle this problem in a way that demonstrates how formidable and ruthless he is.  It may also foreshadow the difficulties he’ll test the hero with.
3.                  Often, a subplot will involve the activities of a secondary character, which end with that character’s death.  This device Is often used to alert the reader of a danger or a key fact that the hero is unaware of.   This generates narrative suspense.  Often this secondary character’s downfall is caused by some fatal flaw or failure; he gives in to a temptation or he fails to perceive a risk, and falls into a trap.  Later on, the hero may have to overcome the obstacle that dooms this secondary character.

Subplots in “Don’t Ever Get Old”
The main plot engine of “Don’t Ever Get Old” is pretty straightforward. Baruch “Buck” Schatz is an 87 year-old World War 2 veteran and retired Memphis cop.  In his day, “social network functionality” came out of a bottle, and “Facebook” was a common police interrogation technique which involved caving a suspect’s nose in with a rolled-up telephone directory.
When he learns the SS officer who tortured him in a POW camp may have escaped Germany with a fortune in stolen gold, Buck decides to hunt down the fugitive and claim the loot.  He's got nothing better to do, and keeping his mind occupied is supposed to ward off dementia.
Assisted by his grandson, a law student who knows how to find information using a computer and is allowed to drive at night, Buck searches for the Nazi's long-cold trail.  But lots of people want a piece of that treasure, and Buck's investigation quickly attracts unfriendly attention from a Mississippi loan shark, a seven-foot tall Hasidic Jew, a preacher on the take, a cop with a grudge. And somebody wants the gold bad enough to kill for it.
But, while that main quest provides the narrative momentum, various page-turning cliffhangers, and a lot of weirdo secondary characters to ridicule, the story’s subplots really develop the underlying themes and explore the central character. 
Buck’s greatest conflict is internal.  He’s defined himself his whole life as a war hero and a badass cop, but he’s been retired nearly three decades, and, as he grows increasingly old and fragile, his idea of himself grows further from his reality.  Living this long has cost him pieces of himself, and, going forward, he stands to lose his autonomy, his dignity and even his memories. 
Buck’s motivation for going on this wild-goose chase is anchored in the man he wants to believe he still is.  By juxtaposing Buck’s tough-guy posturing with his main-plot antagonists with a subplot about Buck’s fragile health and his tense relationship with his doctor, I can show the reader that Buck is putting himself in much greater peril than he’s willing to admit, and I can also explore the implications of any success Buck hopes to achieve in the main plot.  He’s 87 years old, so there’s not a whole lot of happily-ever-after available to him.
Another major subplot explores the relationship between Buck and his adult grandson.  The bond between these characters is strained by their shared grief over the death of Buck’s son, which neither of the characters is prepared to discuss or explore.  Buck further resents his grandson’s facility with confusing technological devices, and he is vexed by the fact that his grandson has never known him as anything but an old man.  As the main plot forces these characters together, conflict sparks between them, and the arc of that relationship becomes a major source of conflict and tension.

Subplots that work in popular fiction:

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton:
This book contains a near perfect example of a subplot that is a self-contained narrative that branches off from and impacts the main plot, and reinforces the larger theme of the novel.
Dennis Nedry developed and operates the computer systems that run the titular dinosaur theme park.  He is also an industrial spy, and he is secretly plotting to steal dinosaur embryos from the facility to sell to a competitor of the company that owns the park.  He disables the park’s security system so he can escape the island with his stolen loot, but, before he can get to his boat, he predictably gets eaten by dinosaurs.
This subplot serves several purposes.  First, it drives the main plot forward by establishing a logical cause for the chain of systemic failures of the park’s security and containment mechanisms that must occur so the dinosaurs can start killing everybody.  
Second, it develops the novel’s main theme:  that it’s impossible to tame nature or create anything that is truly safe, because the universe is inherently unpredictable.  The park creator, John Hammond, thought that his elaborate, redundant security systems could eliminate any danger posed by his attractions, but he didn’t anticipate that the system might be sabotaged by one of his trusted employees.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin
With the recent conclusion of the “Game of Thrones” HBO series and the long-awaited fifth book arriving in stores next week, a lot of people are talking about these books.
Martin’s books are more subplot than plot.  Martin has three different central conflicts and least half a dozen major perspective characters in each thousand-page book of his  fantasy epic, and when he kills one off, he can replace them with a new one from his expansive cast.
Very few writers attempt this kind of structure, and there are definitely places where Martin cuts away from intriguing events to service a plot strand that isn’t as promising.  But Martin’s deep cast of characters allows him to create a unique type of literary suspense.   Secondary and tertiary characters in these books are dangerous and ambitious, and they’ll betray the primary characters at the first promising opportunity.  And betrayal, in these books, is not merely a new plot problem.  From early in the series, Martin establishes that every threat in his world is a serious one.
In a typical thriller, if the protagonist is captured by the antagonist, the reader understands that the hero is in no real jeopardy.  This is merely a complication; a situation from which he must extricate him.  In a Martin book, when a major character is captured by his enemies, there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that they’ll murder him in front of his children.  Most conventionally plotted novels are predictable, but Martin’s intricate structure allows him to set up major reversals that can tear down hundreds of pages of narrative build-up in a single dramatic chapter, and send the story in a sharply different and unanticipated direction. 

Subplots that don’t work:
Dexter (Season 5)
The worst subplot I’ve ever seen was actually the secondary arc of the fifth season of the “Dexter” TV show.  The show is based on Jeff Lindsay’s books, but it hasn’t tracked to any of the novels since the first season.
“Dexter” is about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers, and works as a forensic technician for the Miami police, who are comically oblivious to the protagonist’s extracurricular activities.  The books are written from Dexter’s first-person perspective, and so the reader is always locked into that character’s viewpoint.  In the novels, Dexter views these characters with a charming sort of sociopathic, disinterested contempt.  In the television show, these characters have become the regular cast.
But this is not an ensemble show; it’s still a one-man band, and everybody knows it.  The promotional materials for the show feature Hall covered in blood and grinning like a kid who got caught robbing a cookie jar.  Nobody is tuning in to see scenes from Angel and Maria’s marriage.  “Dexter” is about a serial killer delightfully vamping his way through the worst cop show on television and stabbing people sometimes, just because he feels like it.  Whenever the show focuses on characters other than Dexter, all you’re left with is the worst cop show on television.
The protagonist is the premise here, and the secondary characters can’t really compete for the spotlight.  In the fifth season, there was an extensive subplot among these characters that did not involve Dexter at all.  Apparently, these people were investigating some ridiculous voodoo killings that led to a botched sting operation in a nightclub.
This story arc failed in every way a subplot can fail.  It centered on characters who aren’t likable or interesting.  It didn’t pay off or tie into the main plot, which involved Dexter hunting an evil motivational speaker with guest-star sidekick Julia Stiles.   
Part of the reason that the supporting cast may have had to carry so much of the show’s run-time was that Hall had recently survived a bout with cancer, and he may not have been physically capable of appearing in every scene. 
But plenty of writers have found themselves with protagonists or central plots that, for various reasons aren’t substantial enough to sustain a novel.  Padding that out with extraneous secondary storylines is going to yield poor results.