Monday, March 7, 2011

Like an Onion

I've been doing a lot of revisions this year.  When I write a first draft, I usually have only a vague idea of what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, and what it's going to end up being.  There's always the possibility that I'm going to get to the end of a first draft and realize that I don't even like the story much at all.  That's why first drafts are exciting.  They're trips into the unknown.  Anything can happen.  The possibilities are endless.

Second drafts are where I begin to think about structure.  I wonder if I'm using the right POV, if I've got too many characters or too few, if I'm suffering from that dreaded middle drag (I usually am).  This last weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about subplots.

Does a story need a subplot?  No.  Not necessarily.  I'm sure there are books out there with no subplots.  But a good subplot or two will enrich your world. Especially if it ties well into the main plot arc. ***Deathday Spoiler Alert***

One of my favorite subplots in Deathday was Shane's coming out.  Some people saw it coming from a mile away, others were clueless until he spilled it. In another story, this subplot could have been a throwaway.  Characters coming out just aren't the shocker they used to be.  But I didn't do it for the shock value.  I did it to tie back into the concept of living before dying.  Of seizing the day rather than seizing the deathday.  Shane comes to realize throughout the day that until he tells Ollie his secret, he's not really living. That one day he might end up a kid with a letter and only one day to fulfill all his dreams.  So Shane tells Ollie and (I like to imagine) goes off to have this really awesome life.  And for Ollie, it shows him just how much he's touched the people in his life and how much his last day has meant to everyone, and not just him.  Shane's personal journey impacts Ollie's physical and emotional journey.

Layers.  Like an onion.

To be honest, it's not a particularly subtle subplot. A good subplot is like a soup.  You add your ingredients and let it simmer for days.  You let the flavors develop and the deepen and intermingle.  JELLICOE ROAD is maybe one of the best examples of subplot I've ever read.  By the time you get to the end and see how all the strands come together, your mind is already blown.  

But my point is that subplots aren't just random plots thrown in.  They need to be developed along side the main plot, they need to connect to the main plot, and they need to be real and flow organically from the story.


  1. Another great post, Shaun. Another way in which subplots are like an onion: if you get them just right, so they have a life of their own as well as illuminate the main plot, they can bring tears to your eyes.

  2. Great post, Shaun. I actually didn't see it coming in Deathday, which for me made it all that much better. I like to be surprised when I read, and that was a cool surprise.

    The analogy of an onion is an apt one though. Subplots can be important to the story, though of course not as important as the main plot. They add life to our story, since life is never linear but instead a branching trail with many obstacles, offshoots, and unexpected turns.

  3. Helen: Thank you! I hope the subplots bring the tears :)

    Eric: Woot! At least I surprised one person :)


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