Subplots––Chicken Soup for Your Novel

by Bill Henderson

Chicken soup for your novelSUBPLOTS––chicken soup?

It’s the source of a thousand vaudeville jokes–chicken soup as the common kitchen remedy for a ton of ills. For example:

Have you ever heard from an agent, editor, or trusted reader that your novel “just isn’t long enough. Maybe what you have there is a novella.” Sag. And it gets worse. “Oh, and you know, it takes way too long to to get your story started.”

Wha-a-t? So I need to make it longer, but at the same time, I have to cut to the story quicker?

It makes you crazy with frustration, especially if you’ve done everything you can to push it at least into the 65-75,000 word range. Yet readers are still bailing out before your inciting incident. What to do?

You might solve both your problems at once by introducing a good subplot.

What can a subplot do for you? First, it can take up space. That’s not a joke: even though novels are getting shorter, any word count that drops below 50,000 is heading for novella territory, thus will rarely be considered for book publication unless you are a well-established author.

A subplot can occupy the reader with what appears to be The Story right away. Then, when the event or situation that truly opens your A-plot finally comes, you still have your readers. And if you develop your subplot with the proper care, that A-plot will launch from a springboard of extra meaning.

Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird, strings the reader along for nearly half the book, before introducing the main plot, the rape trial of Tom Robinson. How does she do it? Great characters, to be sure, a riveting narrative voice, a time and place indelibly represented. But these elements alone won’t hold a reader for over 100 pages.

She does it by deploying subplots, principally and most memorably the Boo Radley story, to space with enough narrative tension that the reader will keep turning those pages—while soaking up character knowledge, a sense of the complex world beyond Scout’s understanding, and by osmosis, the themes of fairness and justice in a world too quick to pervert them.

Subplots—and you can certainly have more than one—are what put the meat on the bones of most novel length fiction. And after all, isn’t what we love about the novel, traditionally and now, its breadth of vision, its willingness to present for the reader an entire world, employing plot mechanisms to dramatize the richness in so many situations involving so many people?

There’s a lot more to say about the subplot. For example, a good subplot pays unexpected rewards later, in the main plot—example, again, Boo Radley. I’ll be blogging more about subplot in future posts, that’s a promise.

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