Thursday, 6 June 2013

Starting With Subplot

 
There are stories where you start in the middle of things and keep going. In the case of thrillers and books that are part of a series the reader doesn’t really need an explanation of what’s going on, they’ll work it out on the fly.

In most cases, though, readers prefer to get an idea of characters and setting before things really take off. The inciting incident that propels the main character into adventure may not occur for several chapters.

When you’re trying to establish the world so the reader has an idea of who they’re going to be following for the next few hundred pages the approach is often to show ordinary life, important relationships, interests and activities. And this can be quite dull.

It achieves the goal of showing us life before things get crazy and helps us get to know the characters, but that doesn’t necessarily make it very interesting.

There are ways to make getting out of bed and going to work interesting for the reader—you can use humour, minor conflicts, everyday issues—but one approach worth considering is to start with the subplot.

You can start with a short revelatory scene that shows us who the character is, but if it does that and is never referred to again it will feel a bit tacked on, and more importantly it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that you could do so much more with it.

If what happens in the first scene, even though it isn’t directly connected to the main storyline, has a continuing impact on the character in the story, then not only will it have helped ease the reader into the story, but it will add complexity and depth to the story as a whole.

Let’s say the story is about a Karen who discovers her husband is having an affair, and she goes off to travel around the wine regions of Italy to rediscover herself and in doing so falls in love etc. You don’t really want to start the story with her walking in on her husband in flagrante delicto. It would be a bit of a jarring way to start the story.

So let’s say we start with our heroine visiting her sister and they’re talking about men. The sister is jealous of the solid reliable husband Karen has, and in turn Karen is a bit jealous of her sister’s freedom to do what she wants. Assuming this is an entertaining scene that lets us get to know our main character and shows her to be fun and interesting, when she goes home and finds hubby in bed with the neighbour, readers will feel for her and then follow her into the rest of the story.

That first scene with the sister will have done its job and need never be mentioned again. And in many stories I read that’s the sort of thing that happens.

However, if you know what your story is going to be about, what the themes and issues will be, you can use that first scene to your advantage.

For example, if the first scene was Karen visiting her sister who’s just given birth and is having a hard time coping, and Karen feels relieved that both her and her husband are career-minded and glad she never had kids, you can still provide readers with a way to get to know the main character.

But after she discovers the infidelity and goes off to Italy, maybe the man she meets has kids. Later on maybe she meets up with her sister now in full mummy-mode and it makes her reassess her own feelings about kids.

The point is, because the first scene is thematically linked to the main story it’s possible to develop it into more than a one-off scene, and in doing so add to the main story.

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

14 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Something in the first scene has an impact throughout the book - I did that better with my second book with a character that is part of a subplot. (And he does impact the main character.)

marykate77 said...

I have a tendency to do this, though I would class your example more as character development than a true subplot..
good post.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

I think anything can be interesting if the character has captured the interest of the reader. That's the real goal (I think) in writing fiction.

mooderino said...

@Alex-once things start working together the whole story lifts off the page.

@marykate - all plot is character development.


@Mike - it also helps to have one interesting thing lead into the next.

The Sisterhood said...

What an immensely practical tip! Thank you. I've gotten reasonably good at cramming backstory unobtrusively into the "in medias res" story, but I hadn't thought to use subplot before.

-S

Lynda R Young said...

A very helpful tip. Getting the beginnings right is so important.

Sarah Foster said...

Great advice. I think I did this accidentally, but it could certainly use some tweaking--will definitely keep this in mind when I rewrite.

wordfoolery said...

Hmm, I had never thought of using a subplot that early on in the novel, but yes I think it could work - great tip. Thanks.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I agree that, what we show in the first scene has to have importance somewhere in the book/story, else it will look like we have tacked it on. Great tip, Mooderino.

mooderino said...

@Sisterhood - you're very welcome.

@Lynda - cheers.

@sarah - most of writing comes naturally, i think. Just when things aren't working that it helps to have a look at it.

@Wordfoolery - yvw

@Rachna - makes the story more fun too.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I have the darnedest time nailing the beginnings. I have to rewrite them a lot, especially after I reach the end. I like to have a beginning that entices and hints at the end. I'm still learning how to do that well.

Julie Luek said...

I recently read a book (The Blade by Joe Moore and Lynn Sholes) and it started with a weaving of three plots, two of which were subplots but elemental to the story. It was a great way to begin the book and kept me reading and wondering how they were all going to tie together (which they did!). Great post, as always.

marykate77 said...


a fairly classic device in cop stories is to have a subplot that appears largely irrelevant but ends up being central to solving the main mystery.

There is something about the neatness of having everything tie up together that really appeals, even if at times you can see it coming!

mooderino said...

@C. Lee - doing the start after you've done the end is the best way to do it, I think.

@Julie - it feels rewarding when things come together and frustrating when they don't (I've read a few like that — annoying).

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