Biting Off More Subplots Than You Can Chew Isn’t Scary, Just Tedious
I know some people are afraid of this next number, but Writing Rule #13 isn’t a scary one. Not unless you ignore it.Then, admittedly, the rate at which your readers desert you might very well be reason to scream in shock and horror.
So listen up, creative writers! Here’s one more piece of information you need to know about subplots:
A good subplot enhances a plot, adding intrigue and angles to form a richer, more nuanced story. What it doesn’t do is confuse or overwhelm the reader.
That’s something that sometimes happens when writers include too many of them. Especially if you’re a novice writer, focus on accentuating a few subplots instead of spreading yourself – and your characters – thin with a whole handful.
I actually had a completely different Writing Rule #13 at the beginning of the week, but that changed after Wednesday night thanks to a novel I’m reading. No, I’m not going to mention the name considering that I’m about to criticize it, but let’s just say it’s taking its subplotting powers a little too far.
Okay. A lot too far.
Do you remember watching Titanic in all of its three-hour and 14-minute glory?
I do. I remember how breathtaking the camera shots were.
How rousing the musical score could be.
How my mother made my sisters and I close our eyes for “those” scenes.
And how I just wanted Jack and Rose to drown already after they hit the third locked gate on their way out from steerage. Not one locked gate. Not two. But three!!!!!!
It seriously got to the point where I just wanted them to die.
When it came to the scenes of other people dying, I had to keep telling myself, “Actors and actresses. Actors and actresses.” Tears rolled down my face at the on-screen sight of families clutching each other before the waters overwhelmed them or Titanic shifted so much that they lost their already shaky grips on bulkheads and railings.
But as for Jack and Rose, I felt nothing. All because James Cameron had them run into too many locked gates.
That’s the same risk you take when you throw in too many subplots. When done right, as in the novel I mentioned yesterday, it can be phenomenally compelling. When done wrong, however, readers are left bewildered, unsure what to care about – or if they care at all.
I’m not quite at a Jack-and-Rose point with the book I mentioned above. I do still want the characters to have their happy endings. I'm still curious where the plot is going. And I will still probably buy another story by the same author.
But if she pulls this kind of thing again? Well, we might be done then.
As it is, I’m finding myself caring less about the characters than I did at the beginning, especially now that a whole new element – a whole new subplot – has been added on top of what might very well be 17 others that have already been established.
There’s the romantic angle.
There’s the other romantic angle.
There’s the friendship angle complicated by the romance.
There’s the mystery of what in the world the big tower is for.
There’s the death of the best friend that needs to be avenged.
There’s the new superpowers angle.
There’s the secret passage and strange creature living down there.
I don’t want to bore you, so I won’t go over all 17 of them. But really, there’s a lot. It’s getting tricky to follow everything; and as a reader, I’m not sure exactly where I’m supposed to be investing myself emotionally anymore.
For that matter, I’m not sure if the author herself knows, since she’s bringing potential subplots up and then ignoring them for chapters on end.
So do yourself a favor when you’re coming up with fabulous subplots: Follow a mere few of them out all the way – as in actually finish you story or at least finish those extra story lines – before you throw in another one.
If you do, you shouldn’t have anything to be scared about.