Articles for Writers
Wednesday, 12 June 2013 18:31
Subplots are whole new aspects to conceive, insert and blend into your premise. They can add not only word count, but can have an echoing effect on the conflict, theme or premise you choose to write about. Subplots do not typically slide along independently of the main plot, because that fragments reader attention. This type of subplot can work in fiction, however. So, if you have an idea for a side-by-side story, don't abandon it just because it's rare.
For most other stories you will want the subplot to weave in and out of the main plot, intersecting, impacting and affecting the main plot and vice versa. So you must first figure out the reason the subplot would intersect with the main plot. To do this, let's borrow a technique from Donald Maass. Try listing your main and secondary characters and their goals, maybe add setting locations and see where these characters will cross one another's paths. Now, think of ways the secondaries can interact to shed light on what the mains are doing, help the mains, or make trouble for the mains. Or think of ways the mains can spin off ideas the secondaries can work with that will come back to haunt them later.
The impact of subplots should be indirect, but powerful. Subplots are very often about contrast. They shouldn't repeat the events of the main plot or only be there to provide comic relief. They should offer an alternate perception of the main conflict. Common subplots involve personal relationships of the mains. For example, in a detective novel, the detective is busy trying to find the serial killer before he strikes again. A subplot for him is his relationship with his girlfriend. Maybe she's pushing him to get married and because he can see the effects of a bad marriage in the profile of the serial killer, he's resisting the idea. The subplot impacts the main story.
A good subplot also embellishes a main story in a number of ways. The subplot can convey the theme because the main character may be too busy with action. A main character whose goal is to explore the Amazon River can be busy tangling with large snakes and lack of fresh water, while the subplot could have to do with negotiating with his belligerent native guide, who resents the intrusion of the explorer as much as he needs the work the explorer provides. These two story threads clash at the point of fighting for survival, which highlights the overall theme of man against nature and man against human nature.
A subplot can deepen characterization by exploring a main character's relationships and growth. If the main character is busy trying to persuade a record company to give him a contract for his rock band, the subplot could highlight the interactions between the band members that make it difficult for him to hold the band together long enough to record something. A subplot can work to show a contrasting point of view on an issue. The main character could be a privileged rich kid trying to win the love and approval of his disinterested parents while the subplot of the kid's best friend is about a poor kid from a loving home who wants to earn lots of money to help his family.
Subplots can also create and enhance the believability of plot twists. If you have plot elements that may be a bit difficult to believe such as a city guy who successfully escapes from the mob to start a new life, a subplot involving the mob still looking for the guy makes us believe he escaped successfully and at the same time adds tension as we wonder whether the mob will catch up to him as he tries to learn how to get along in his new small town neighborhood where people are kind and trusting.
Subplots need beginnings, middles, and ends, so don't just throw them in without thinking about plots for them. Just as your main character needs a goal and conflicts, the characters involved in your subplot need goals and conflicts. To take our example above of the mob, the mob sends a seeker to find the escapee. His goal is to find and kill the escapee, and he will be faced with obstacles he must overcome. He may also grow and change as a character, have his own climax where he makes a life-changing decision that resolves his conflict and, in turn, affects the ending of the main story.
Subplot events can occur offstage so that they don't take away from the main plot's action. In this case, they would be referred to, or be covered during introspection or dialogue rather than be live blow-by-blow scenes. They more often take place on-stage, especially if you want to push the main plot in a direction it might not be able to otherwise go. For example, when getting a secondary character to team up with a main, it might be necessary to give him his own subplot that forces him to take a chance with the main in an attempt to resolve his conflict.
Subplots should end right around the time when the main plot does and the resolution of one should ideally set up the resolution of the other. Most subplots, in one way or another, are about the contrasting and conflicting values of characters. As you think about your main characters and their goals, and then about their opposition and the opposition's goals, you may naturally have a nice, clean story conflict. But it's rare for any conflict to be black and white. There are always subtle nuances, the grays of the situation, to be explored. Subplots are a great way to enhance the flavor of your theme without going crazy trying to weave bits of complexity into your main plot.
Got questions about subplots? Ask away.
Interested in some fresh ways to handle dialogue click here for my Savvy Authors - starting next Monday, June 17th!
For some just-in-time ideas on how to handle pacing click here for my July workshop at Hearts Through History RWA workshop
Calling All Authors - who want to write incredible characters! Here's a tip from one of my upcoming workshops:
What can you do to make a character unique and memorable? Big things and little things.
Memorable, larger-than-life characters do big things. They do things that we ordinary human beings only dream about. This means they could be doing things like saving entire nations, standing up for a local or personal injustice or just mouthing off to the boss the way you'd love to but know you can't get away with because you'd lose your job. You can help your readers live vicariously by creating characters who CAN get away with these kinds of extraordinary feats. When you think in terms of big things, let the character do the thinking for you. For big things take advantage of the character's internal thoughts and feelings. Thinking big and dreaming big are usually things characters do with their internal thoughts because saying them aloud can bring on ridicule from other characters or give away the character's ultimate plan to overcome an antagonist. You can start generating big things by finishing these sentence starters for your characters:
"I will always..."
"I would never..."
For example, suppose your character thinks, "I will always keep this cottage in the family." or, "I would never sell this family heirloom." Then, under pressure and conflict your character must give up the family cottage or sell the family heirloom. This is a big thing. A thing that shows the reader the extent to which the character has been pushed to the extreme level to resolve the conflict. Big things like this rivet readers because they wonder what they would do in a similar situation.
Look through the ordinary to find the unusual in your character's experiences. Notice I didn't say to look past the ordinary as in look for something out of the ordinary or something extraordinary. That's the big thing (see above). Instead start with something ordinary, something any reader could connect with and use it as a lens to look through to find the one small thing that points to the character's inner conflict, or if not a conflict then an outlook. A view the character has of himself and what he wants to do right now, or a feeling the character is wrestling with. Often this is an attitude or emotion the character knows he must overcome in order to become a better person or to reach a goal. Most of these are internal things. The little things that have, over time, become obstacles to the character's success or happiness.
For example, what if it's a holiday and the character's family is exchanging gifts. He fusses and is reluctant to open his gifts. "I do it later." Or "You open your gifts. I'll wait." Or "Not right now. I want to eat dinner first." It's a little thing. An ordinary thing. Any character should be able to handle this situation. Just open your gifts. Everyone else is opening their gifts. Eventually, the character is persuaded to open his gifts. He smiles and nods his thanks. What is the reason this character is having so much difficulty with gift-opening? Perhaps it is not explained, but when you read about this scene you will understand that something is bothering this character. You will want to know why he's reluctant to open his gifts.
Your character's voice will come through strongly if you pay attention to these big and little things.
For more great lessons (and personalized feedback on your work) register for my upcoming workshops on Character Voice or Dialogue at Savvy Authors.
In classic literary analysis, a character flaw is an internal character weakness that brings conflict to the character's world and sometimes brings about his downfall. Shakespeare's Hamlet has a character flaw in his indecisiveness. Because he can see all sides of the issue of his father's death, he cannot make a clear decision about whether and how to strike back at his enemies. Character flaws are important because they show the basic humanity of the character, making them accessible for readers to relate to them while they may still be portrayed as "larger than life". It's easy to tag the character with major flaws, for example: he's a loner, she's a leader, he's a wounded soul, she's a survivor.
My advice is not to think big here, but to think small that becomes big. Connect with your reader first. Readers connect with small, specific things better than with big broad themes. For example: he compulsively stirs his coffee thirty times, it drives her crazy. Why does he do it? It primes him to think about his daily to do list. He needs to do it. What does this generalize into? He needs a moment of lead time before he makes decisions. On the other hand, she makes snap decisions, and he hates that she doesn't take the time to think. Do you see room for growth and understanding in each character? Plus, some great conflicts?
Because stories depend on characters and readers connecting with those characters, the best stories have characters that despite their flaws are easy to connect with or are unusual or special in some way. As an author you can make use of a small flaw such as a mannerism or habit to reveal character and give the reader a focus for connecting with your characters.
We see human mannerisms every day, and since they are so common, we may no longer pay attention to them. If you become adept at describing mannerisms in words and you infuse your characters with unique mannerisms, your readers will make stronger connections to your characters, making it easy for your readers to visualize the story events as they happen.
Think back to when you were a student in elementary or high school. Recall some of your teachers, recall how they walked around the room, how they engaged the class, how they spoke. In high school I had a chemistry teacher who called everyone "babe", boys, girls, other adults, even the principal. "Hey babe. How are ya babe? Okay, babe this is what we're going to do today." After a while you just shake your head and ignore it. Or, stow it away for use in a future book.
Go to a sporting event, lecture, or just hang around in any public place and you can observe useful mannerisms to put in your books. Look for: tapping fingers, wiggling feet or legs, chewing cheeks or lips or nails, flipping hair out of eyes, running fingers through hair, cracking knuckles, pursing lips, puffing breath. Listen for: repeated words and phrases, unvoiced hums, clicks and other noises. If you don't have time to go out to observe, choose a film and watch it with the sound turned off.
Personal habits are what make us who we are. They are ways that we approach problem solving, ways that we handle stress, ways that we goof off. Many of our personal habits developed during childhood. Some could even be attributed to genetics, since mannerisms and habits are often shared amongst family members.
Your main characters should each have at least one identifiable mannerism or habit that is unique to them. Preferably, the mannerism or habit will reflect their character and put them into conflict with other characters. It doesn't matter whether your character's habit is long standing or more recently acquired, or whether it is a good habit or a bad habit. It does matter how you show it and how it affects other characters or impacts the story.
Evaluate the meaning of your characters habits. What does the habit say about the type of person your character is?
Is it an addictive habit? One that he can't shake?
Does it change him from a Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde or the reverse?
Is the habit something the character learned to please a parent or mentor?
What is the function of this habit? What does it do for the character (good or bad)?
How detrimental is the habit to the character?
Is it second nature to him? Does he do it without thinking?
How regularly does the character perform the mannerism? What are the circumstances?
How does the habit affect other characters? Does it drive them crazy, or is it comforting?
Does the habit highlight a talent or strength?
Has the character ever tried to break the habit?
Is this a new habit the character is working on?
Answer some of these questions for your character to help connect this small habit to the larger picture of who your character is and why he behaves the way he does. A small habit often indicates the beginning of a larger problem. The small character flaw is what makes it possible for your reader to connect with your character and that can be crucial to your story.
For more lessons and practice with characters and their flaws, check out my upcoming class:
You are What You Say
February 1, 2013 - February 28, 2013 with Outreach International RWA - Click here to register
This workshop examines the elements needed to reveal character through dialogue. Using character development techniques you already know such as goals, motivations and backstory, learn how to reveal strong characters through their words and connect those words to other elements in your story. Successful novels have an increasing amount of dialogue over narration, forcing dialogue sequences to do more and more of the work of telling the story. Learn how to reveal important information about characters, turning thoughts, appearances, and actions into spoken words. Workshop includes lessons on using dialogue to build tension and anticipation, reveal story secrets, enhance setting and hit readers in the gut with emotion. Includes lessons on dialogue tags, and blending dialogue with narration. Examples from bestselling novels offered as models. This workshop includes a 1-hour chat with the author midway through the workshop
Hey, you knew it would one day come to this, didn't you? If not, then you're still dreaming. Shh....don't wake those painfully shy authors from their blissful dreams. They'll find out soon enough it's not possible for publishers to do all the promotion necessary to introduce a book to the reading public. Let's talk quietly while they sleep on. Another reason for talking quietly is that I know most of you who are reading this are pretty shy, too. You probably don't go around gushing constantly about your latest book or carrying extra copies in your trunk just in case you manage to make a sale somewhere along the way during your daily activities. (If you do, good for you!).
It has come to this: self-promotion. You've got to get out there and sell yourself and sell your books. If you get cold sweats just thinking about self-promo for your books you are not alone. Many authors, even well-known ones, have to work hard to get the word out to the book-buying public. Building your readership doesn't happen accidentally, nor does it have to give you nightmares. Here are several low-cost ways to jump into self-promotion without yanking yourself out of your comfy little introvert shell.
First, let's be honest and say up front that your publisher will do very little to promote you. A collective ad in a genre magazine (maybe), sending out review copies (only if it's a hardcover book), and the occasional promotional product giveaways are the rare promotional pushes new and mid-list authors get. Don't count on featured space in bookstores, author signings, or multicity book tours until you are earning lots of money for the publisher. So, what can you do from the comfort of your introverted little shell to promote your books?
At a minimum you'll want a website, some social media links and an email. Your website can be pretty simple, the kind you can set up using templates provided by your website hosting company. You'll want a page that tells a little about you and what kinds of stories you like to write. You don't have to post a photo of yourself. Post one of your doggie instead. Readers love pets. Many authors these days use an avatar instead of their own photo. Another page on your website should list the books you have for sale. You'll want to have the book cover, a blurb and maybe a short excerpt. On that same page provide purchase links to your publisher and also to popular sites like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Other pages, such as a blog, a page with links to your favorite authors or other sites relevant to your writing are optional. You'll want to provide a way for people to contact you, so have a page with your Facebook and Twitter links as well as a contact email or contact form. Other great social media portals are places like Goodreads or Shelfari where you can share your favorite books and learn about what your friends are reading. Spend some time each month sending free copies of your books to review sites, asking them to review your book. There are many review sites out there and it may take months for reviewers at those sites to get around to reading and reviewing you, so don't wait. If you've got extra cash on hand, you might consider having a book trailer made.
You will also want to promote you. This is not as easy. If you're too shy to go out to your local bookstores or library and far too shy to even think about doing promo by newspapers, TV, or radio, then you have to count on building your readership through online means through your website and social media links. One good method for building your name recognition and getting readers to visit your site is to go on a blog tour. Look for a blog tour promotion company such as Goddess Fish Promotions or Writer Marketing Services who will arrange a tour for you, contact all the blog sites and send you the interview questions or blog topics you will need to write. If you're too shy even for this, then you can arrange tours that review your book or simply display your book cover and blurb with purchase links.
There's one more way you can promote yourself and your books without exposing too much of your sensitive side: promotional items. Promotional items, imprinted with your book cover, logo or website can be mailed off to be distributed at writer's conferences, workshops and meetings, libraries, bookstores and book clubs. Most readers are only too happy to receive a professionally-made and practical item. With promotional items, quality counts. If you are going to go to the expense of providing these items to potential readers they have to look professional. If you don't know anything about design and layout, hire someone who does.
Promotion is cumulative. The more you do and the more regularly you do it, the more it builds your name among the readers who are out there. In the meanwhile, perhaps you can learn to overcome some of your shyness and then more promotional opportunities will be available to you. Of course, the most important component of promotional success is to write the best books you possibly can. Most of your energy should be devoted to writing and writing well.
Written by Kat Duncan
Monday, 17 December 2012 10:50
Donald Maass started writing advice to writers back in the mid-1990s. He's a published novelist (under a pseudonym) and has a successful career as a literary agent, so I think he has a good background to draw on. Tens of thousands of writers slave away hour after hour trying to write the best novel they possibly can. Mr. Maass asked himself: of those novels that find publication, why do so many of them fall flat in the market? He offers some insights into this in his books, and in my opinion he does one thing better than many others who give writing advice: he uses novels as examples.
Other authors who write about how to write use movies as examples. There's nothing wrong with using movies as examples except that using ONLY movies as examples doesn't ever really get at the heart of good writing. A movie and a novel are two very different mediums for storytelling. Using movies as examples can be a good starting point for discussing several important topics in writing. After all, movies have plots, characters, conflict, scenes, settings, and beginnings, middles, and endings, just like novels do. However, using only movies as examples can cause you to fall into the trap of using screenwriting techniques and terms. Some of these translate well and apply to novels, while others do not. A good screenplay is based on the dramatic elements of timing and visual input. A good novel is based on the dramatic elements of subjective detail and complexity driven by personal imagination.
Novels do not have the luxury of presenting information to the reader on their own fixed time frame. Readers can pick up and put down novels at any point in the story. Yes, I realize you can walk out of a movie and you can hit pause and replay on the DVD player, but typically you do not. Besides, not many read an entire novel in one sitting. As an author, spending time learning techniques of timing such as beats and visual drama that do not translate well into prose makes your novel's success dependent on dialogue and dramatic action. This works for some novels. But very few of these are breakout novels. Breakout novels offer something more than just snappy dialogue and lots of action. They present profound messages that can be interpreted and explored on many levels.
The differences between novels and movies are obvious when a novel gets made into a movie. Certain scenes that work well in the novel do not translate well into the visual format of a movie and novel scenes often have to be pumped up and dramatized to really work in a visual setting. The reverse is also difficult, making a novel out of a movie because it's hard work to develop the words to capture the deeper meanings of the visual action. That's what most authors who use movies as examples are asking you to do. If you are struggling to write a novel, why would you want to make the task that much harder by using only movies as examples?
Mr. Maass's techniques go deeply into the vehicle of prose and its unique qualities. Using modern breakout novels, not the classics that might be a stretch for budding writers, he uncovers the essence of what makes a novel break out: a novel world that feels so real you don't want to leave, characters so memorable you wouldn't be surprised to meet them in person, and a passionate, complex message that will change your reader's way of viewing the world.
Even if you haven't read the novels he refers to (he provides excerpts) you can understand the explanations he gives and try out the writing techniques that could work for you at this point in your career. The techniques also come in several formats to help you make the most of your time.
Join me this coming year for an exciting and worthwhile journey into the breakout novel world. I'm teaching Maass's Breakout Novel Series in 4 Parts: Character Development, Plot Development, Story Techniques and Pitching, and Advanced Breakout Techniques. I have a limited number of Writing the Breakout Novel books and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbooks. If you comment on this post before December 25th, I'll be randomly drawing names to give them away.
Click here to learn more about the Maass workshops I'm teaching at Savvy Authors.
Click here to learn more about all my upcoming workshops.
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