Monday, October 10, 2011

Testing the Middle: Subplots

A few days ago, we talked about some simple tests for the end of a book to make sure it fits the story and reads smoothly. In response to that post, someone asked me to do a similar post on the middles of books.

Middles are hard! They're like Tolstoy's families -- good middles share similar characteristics, but every bad middle is bad in its own way. For this reason,  it's hard to say with any specificity how to fix a bad middle, because every bad middle is going to require a different kind of fix. That said, I can tell you some of the things I look at when I examine the rising action. First up, subplots.

Subplots create a lot of problems for a lot of books, and a junky subplot can confuse the reader and create a drag on the rising action as much as a junky main plot. We see a wide variety of subplot issues -- wandering action, irrelevant ideas, dull secondary conflicts, characters that are taking over when they shouldn't, conflicts that are overwhelming the main conflicts, and so on. When a book has subplots, there are a few things I do during the structural analysis to test the subplot.

First, I question whether the entire subplot is necessary. There's a great way to test the necessity of a subplot to the main plot. Look at the moment when the subplot is resolved. Does its resolution change the course of the main plot's action? If so, the subplot is necessary to the main plot. Next, we have to evaluate whether every scene in the subplot (not just that final scene) is necessary to reach the point where the main plot and subplot intersect. This isn't too difficult -- just take the subplot moment by moment and figure out which are absolutely necessary. There should be a pretty clean chain of causation in these subplot events. Anything not a part of that chain of causation can probably be cut.

Necessity isn't strictly, er, necessary. A subplot can serve functions other than pure plot functions. So if the subplot does not change the course of the main plot's action, I start looking for a non-plot purpose for the subplot. Perhaps the characters in the subplot are foils to the characters in the main plot. Perhaps there's thematic relevance. Perhaps the author is building a motif or a parallel scene to enhance the structure. There are legitimate reasons other than plot which would lead an author to write a subplot, and those reasons usually manifest in what I call echoes.

Echoes are little more than subplot aspects which resemble aspects of the main plot in some ways. Whether in foils, themes, motifs, parallels, or any other kind of non-plot element, relevant subplot echoes will relate in some way back to the main plot. That relationship will serve to underscore the element in the main plot -- that is, the subplot serves the main plot by making some aspect of the main plot feel more significant through repetition or reversal.

So first, I have to identify the ways in which these echoes exist on the page. And then I check whether those echoes are strong and meaningful enough to warrant the continued existence of the subplot. This requires a bit of subjective analysis, and it's not easy to say, "THIS is how you measure these kinds of echoes." All I can say is that, if it feels weak, it's weak. If it feels irrelevant, it's irrelevant. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be cut, but it will need to be fixed.

So, on to the fixing. In general, I find that the first and last scenes in a subplot are the ones that count. This isn't always true, of course, but it's true more often than not. So I start with those two scenes, and I look at what is being accomplished in those scenes. Do the scenes in their entirety echo the main plot? Or is it only certain aspects of the scenes which contain echoes? Because the first and last scenes of the subplot anchor the subplot to the main plot in a more direct way, those echoes should be strong and clear. Those echoes should dominate those scenes. If they don't, we have to find a way to make them so.

Once the anchor scenes are solid, I turn to the middle scenes in the subplot thread. It frequently happens that an author will build an entire scene in the middle of subplots to accomplish something very small. So I look at those scenes and try to isolate the important echo bits. Can any of those bits be moved into other scenes? If so, do it and cut the unimportant parts. In fact, that's pretty good advice for any kind of scene -- figure out what's important in the scene, and cut the rest. But it's even more vital to do this in subplots, which need greater justification to survive the editorial ax.

At this point, we should have two solid anchor scenes and some bits or even full scenes remaining. Now I look at this collection of pages and paragraphs, and I try to determine patterns. With good, well-developed echoes, they will probably reappear in various forms and at various times throughout the text, but they will tie into a single concept -- so, for example, if water is a motif, and it's being used to develop the idea that secrets cannot be contained, the text will show streams, bottles of water, rain, swimming pools, and similar water elements at various moments. Do those water elements appear when the secrets are relevant to the action? They should, if that's the purpose of the motif. So, if you have a subplot scene with characters drifting lazily downriver on inner tubes, but none of those characters are worried about keeping or revealing a secret, then the scene is only accomplishing half its job. Either supply the other half in revision, or cut the scene.

Sometimes it will happen that an echo will be a one-off. That is, the particular echo will appear one time only in the course of the entire novel. That makes it a likely candidate for cutting, but it can be spared if that single instance is important enough to change substantially the way a reader interprets a text. This is more likely to happen if the echo is symbolic -- think of Eve in the garden eating the apple of knowledge. She only ate one apple, and she only ate it once. So even though it doesn't recur in the way a motif would recur, it's important enough that the entire story of the garden of Eden would fall apart without it. (Yes, that's a main plot, not a subplot, but you get the idea.)

As I mentioned, it's very hard to diagnose subplot problems in the abstract, but this is more or less the method I use when analyzing subplots. It all boils down to relevance, and generally, the result of this process is a pile of scraps on the cutting room floor.



Guy said...

I echo this. :)

Clare K. R. Miller said...

This is a fabulous post and I'm going to have to read it multiple times! I think the thoughts about whether subplots and scenes are important are good ones to have in mind when drafting, not just revising.

Scott Bury said...

Very good explication. I'm glad I took some sub-plots out of my novel. Now I'll have to go over it again.