When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.
Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.
Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.
But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.
However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!
The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.
I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.
I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!
Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”
And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.
If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.
So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.
Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.
For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots
Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.
I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.
Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.
My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.
One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.
As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.
There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.
And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.
Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.
I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.
So while I was gathering some links, I hit on this one post entitled “How to Add Subplots to Your Novel.” When I saw the title, I thought, “Someone has some advice for people who can’t think up subplots. Brilliant!”
Except that wasn’t what the article was about at all. It’s a good article, don’t get me wrong. It explains what subplots are and the purpose they serve in a novel–basically the same info I wrote about last week. There is some additional advice about mistakes to avoid when weaving the subplot around your main plot and so forth, but nothing for the person who realizes their story needs the extra depth of subplots, but can’t figure out what the subplots should be. As I said, it’s a great article, just with a misleading title. The title should have been something like, “How to Properly Use Subplots in Your Novel Once You Think Them Up.”
Clearly, I need to write about this! First, though, I should admit that I’m having to do some reverse-engineering to write this. My problem has never been thinking up subplots, it has always been restraining myself form using all of them that pop into my head. My subconscious just churns them out by the gross, but I have a good idea of how it does this. Because of that overabundance, I have often been asked by members of Writers’ groups and other people reading drafts questions such as, “Why did you add this sequence in?”
My flip first answer was, “I didn’t add it! It’s just there.” What I meant by that is, when I think about all the characters in my story, I always think about things they are doing throughout their day and who are the imporant people in their lives. For instance: one supporting character runs a deli that she and her husband own. Her husband works as a handyman with a number of clients mostly in their neighborhood, including helping with the business, but she’s the one who runs it. She hires and supervises the staff, makes decisions about where to buy ingredients, designs the menu, and so forth. She also has a sister who she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with, especially when it comes to religious matters. Her husband, unbeknownst to most of the family, is secretly one of the Elders of the Brotherhood of Chaos. She refers to these activities as her husband “taking care of some lodge nonsense again.”
I could keep going on and on about this supporting character who isn’t even directly involved in the main plot of the novel where she was introduced. All of those details I mentioned about the other people in her life, the business, et cetera, each has potential for subplots. Her deli is where one of the important conversations one of the protagonists has early in the book takes place. Her son is another of the protagonists (this novel has three protagonists).
Even though her first involvement in the novel is that conversation I mentioned, that isn’t why I created her. I was figuring out who my main characters were, and when I was looking at the third protagonist, I asked myself who was important in his life, and started jotting down ideas. Once I had a few sentences about her and her husband, I moved on. I was doing a similar exercise for another protagonist who runs an antique shop, and was wondering what other businesses share the same road, and I immediately thought of the deli-running character. Which gave me a connection between two of the protagonists.
So, if you are stuck for subplots:
- For every character in your story, jot down the names of a few people important to them (this doesn’t have to be loved ones), a few facts about their life that have nothing to do with the main plot, and at least one ongoing activitiy (it can be as simple as “goes to work every day”)
- For the characters who have significant roles in the main plot, think about times that they are not on center stage, and ask yourself what were they doing when they were gone. And don’t settle for, “Well, she has to retrieve the holy relic from the monastery then meet back up with the others.” Right. So who does she meet on the way? How does she get there? Where does she eat? What could happen that might delay her?
- Think like an actor in a stage play: when the character is on stage but not the center of attention, what is the character doing? If two of your supporting characters are having lunch while the protagonist consults an oracle, what do those supporting characters talk about?
Not all of these things will be subplots. If you tried to make all of them subplots, it will look like one of my first drafts. But that’s where most subplots come from: answering the questions about what else is going on in the lives of your characters and their neighbors and friends and enemies outside of the main plot.
I was reading a discussion between several fans of a book that I have read, and was finding myself very confused. They kept talking about a subplot that I didn’t remember, and the conversation went in a weird direction where several people in the discussion were arguing about what the subplot actually was. And I finally realized that none of the people in the discussion knew what the word “subplot” means. They seemed to have confused “subplot” with “subtext” and were actually arguing about the underlying metaphors that they thought the author was portraying.
So first, let’s get some definitions.
subplot – a part of the story of a book or play that develops separately from the main story; a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot; a subordinate part of a story distinguished from the main plot by taking up less of the action, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and occurring to less important characters.
Subtext, on the other hand, is an underlying, implied theme in a creative work. It is never announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds.
So a subplot consists of explicit actions that occur in the story: the characters of Merry and Pippin getting separated from the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring and having separate adventures before eventually rejoining the other characters is a subplot. The events actually happen on screen/page. On the other hand, postulating that the entire story is ultimately a commentary about death and obsession, those are discussions of subtext. If you are talking about the meaning of the story, you’re talking about subtext.
If you’re still not sure what a subplot is, it might be helpful to think about a typical television show. The primary plot (often called the A plot) of an episode of a workplace comedy might be about the annual staff review. The subplot (usually called the B plot) might be exploring a relationship between two of the characters. Another subplot (usually called the C plot) might be that one of the characters has started shaving at his desk and it is really annoying two other characters. Quite often in television shows the C plot is a running gag that resurfaces again and again. In my example, the character who shaves at his desk in that episode may have a lot of weird annoying habits, for instance.
Subplots serve various purposes in a story:
- Add depth to your characters
- Foreshadow things in later stories when you’re doing a series
- Provides a sense of reality by showing other things happening in parallel to the main plot
- Control the rising and falling sense of urgency as the main plot progresses
- Reinforce the theme or show contrasts to the theme
Please note that I didn’t say anything about increasing the word count of your story. A lot of people think that’s the purpose of subplots in a novel, and I realize that I’ve perpetuated that misapprehension myself when I’ve said that “subplots help fill out a novel.” But what I was actually referring to was that subplots buttress your plot by doing each of the things listed above. Specifically:
Add depth to your characters. The main plot might be about preventing a supernatural disaster that could kill millions, while the subplot about one character not wanting to be betrothed to the person his parents have chosen gives insight into that character’s life and priorities. This gives the reader a stronger sense of the character and more ways to care about how the main plot affects him.
Foreshadow things in later stories. If you already know you want to write sequels to this tale, whether it is a short story, novella, or a novel, a subplot in this story can lead to the primary plot of the next.
Provides a sense of reality. Real life is messy. People have multiple things going on in their lives at the same time. Showing some of the other things happening at the same time as the main plot adds depth and breadth to your fictional world, solidifying your setting. The subplots still need to tie into or support the main plot, which can take many forms. The subplot may explain why a crucial supporting character is unavailable at a crisis point, for instance.
Control the rising and falling sense of urgency. This is one of the most common reasons subplots are employed in TV shows, movies, and the like: it gives the director something to cut to when they want to leave the main plot of a minor cliffhanger or to give the viewer a breather from a particularly intense scene. The same thing happens in prose stories. You can have a scene that shows your main character(s) attempting to sneak into the dark overlord’s stronghold, for instance, and bring them right up to the point where they are surprised by a guard. Then you end the scene on the cliffhanger, and jump to another location where two of the supporting characters who have become lost in the woods then follow them until a moment where they meet a stranger. Then you leave that scene and jump to another location where one of the minions of the dark lord is preparing an ambush of yet another group of supporting characters, and so forth. If first two scene were particularly intense, instead of having the minion setting up an ambush, you might show them failing to accomplish something in a humorous way, to provide a bit of comic relief.
Reinforce or contrast the theme. Suppose the theme of your story is how people react to the possibility of death. You might have one subplot involve a set of supporting characters dealing with another type of loss—perhaps their business is failing or their marriage is on the rocks. You can then have this subplot progress along with the main plot. It might not be resolved until the end when the main plot is resolved. Or you might decide to have it resolve at about the same time that the main plot takes a particularly emotional turn. And/or you may have a subplot that, instead of dealing with the loss or ending of something, is about the beginning of something in the life of another supporting character.
Please note that a single sub-plot can do several or all of these things for your story. The subplot about the supporting characters’ failing business will surely give depth to those particular characters as the reader sees how they react to the fear of the loss to begin with, and how they deal with each stage. Such a subplot also shows that there is more to the life of the characters than just the events of your main plot, providing a sense of reality.
I began this post by talking about people who had confused a subplot with subtext. While a subplot is a different thing than subtext, a subplot can contain subtext. Just as the main plot can have subtext. To sum up: the plot is the explicit primary problem that the protagonist struggles with from the beginning of the story all the way until the end. A subplot is a smaller or less important problem that one or more characters struggle with explicitly for some portion of the story, but not necessarily the entire tale. Subtext is an implicit (or inferred) theme or meaning which the reader understands without the author ever explicitly mentioning it.
Another important different is that plots and subplots are always things that author put in the story intentionally. Subtext can exist completely divorced from the author’s intent. But that’s a topic for another day.
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
For another take on some of the topics covered here, but not from the viewpoint of a sci fi fan, you might find this informative: The Sci-Fi Roots of the Far Right—From ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ to Newt’s Moon Base to Donald’s Wall
A while back I posted about why I dislike large expository dumps in fiction (Trust the reader to keep up). I still stand by what I wrote there, but thanks to a great essay by Cecilia Tan, Let Me Tell You, I realize that advice like that feeds into a misperception that all exposition is inherently bad. At best, it ignores the fact that there is a big difference between expository dumps and quality exposition. I’ve linked to Tan’s essay before, and it is well worth the read, but the crux of her argument is here:
Tan is hardly the first person to point out that the cliched advice to ‘show, don’t tell‘ is problematic: Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops or 5 REASONS ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ IS BAD ADVICE. But the easiest way to see that it is at best an oversimplification is simply to remember that writers are story tellers. You can’t tell a story without, well, telling some things.
These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
From the point of view of teaching people how to write, ‘show don’t tell’ is part of an entire tool kit which is used for gatekeeping. See, if you do not understand enough of the cultural touchstones being alluded to (but not actually told about) in the so-called literary novels, you can’t understand the novel. In other words, the less that your upbringing resembled a white, male, cis het, upper middle class childbood, the less likely that those novels will be understood by you, and therefore less likely they will appeal to you. And if you admit that you didn’t like them and didn’t understand them, that is used by some people to label you as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and tasteless. You can get past those gatekeepers if you don’t fall into all of those categories (there are a number of works by gay male authors, for instance, that are routinely accepted into the category because those authors understood the culture and learned all the tricks), but the entire toolkit of the literary elite created a situation where you must learn the secret codes in order to understand the stories.
Several science fiction and fantasy authors have pointed out that it is impossible to tell a good sf/f tale following the ‘show don’t tell’ stricture because in order to put the reader into a world that differs from ours, you have to at least occasionally tell the reader some things.
But you don’t have to do that by placing large chunks of your world-building as a lecture or debate about history that goes on for pages and pages. You certainly don’t have to make your viewpoint character an outsider who doesn’t know anything about this world, so has to constantly have things explained to them by others. You can explain things without slowing down the plot. You can tell the reader about the setting in small sips. You can do that in context along the way.
Trust the reader to understand, yes, but trust the story, too. You’re a story teller, so tell your story.
The frustration about the opening line is a symptom of the character’s internal conflicts, but as the story goes on and the external conflicts snowball into ever more ridiculous issues (not to mention the very real issue that the protagonist becomes wanted for the suspicious disappearance of his ex-wife), the opening line becomes a symbol of all the conflicts, internal and external. And so, when the possibly senile Momma interrupts the main character while talking about the word choices (while they are fleeing the police on a train to Mexico), to tell him the word he’s been looking for is “sultry” it forces the crisis point of the plot.
What I love about that surprise (besides being funny) is that it doesn’t just come out of left field. It had been established earlier in the movie—more than once—that Momma is a crossword enthusiast. One of her son’s daily routines is to fold the newspaper to the crossword and lay it out for her with a cup of tea. We see it several times. The son mentions “Momma’s crossword” at least once in the dialogue.
It was foreshadowed.
But subtly. And because of what happens next (and the epiphany that follows from it) we see that the opening where the character struggled to find just one word eventually leads to the character finding his voice again.
So the opening led to the ending.
I don’t know the process that Stu Silver (the screen writer of Throw Momma from the Train) went through to produce this specific script, and movie making is a different kind of storytelling than prose writing, but we can take some educated guesses. First, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if originally the movie started with a very different opening. It is quite possible that the discussion about opening lines was originally something written in the middle of the story, and it was only when the writer was trying to come up with a reason for the protagonist to snap that the whole “Sultry! The word you’re looking for is sultry!” came up.
I’m guessing this because most first drafts don’t begin with the same opening that will ultimately be used in the final draft. Quite often we don’t know how the thing ought to begin until we’ve finished the first draft and we’re looking at the ending. Which is why my first rule I mentioned in the first post in this series was: Don’t get hung up on the first line. Just get the story going, knowing that anything can be fixed in rewrite. Once you have finished the first draft, if you’re happy with the overall shape of the tale, then figuring out the beginning is a matter of looking at the ending and how the character got there, and figuring out which kind of beginning works best with the tale, and try writing several.
If you aren’t happy with the overall shape, ask yourself why. And if you can’t write down specific problems, if all you’ve got is “I don’t like it” or “It doesn’t work,” then there may be nothing wrong with the basic structure of the story, just that you’re feeling doubt. But to be certain, remember to do each of the following:
- Read it aloud in a room by yourself. All sorts of problems in stories become crystal clear when we do this.
- Show the story to someone you trust to give you honest feedback. If they say the story isn’t working, they’re probably right. But remember that when a reader tells specifically what is wrong and how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. If they say they lost interest at a particularly point, yes, by all means, try to figure out what you did wrong there, but take the reader’s reaction as a general observation of overall soundness, not for detailed diagnosis.
- If your current draft has an Into Pot, Already Boiling beginning, try rewriting it as an Opening Statement to the Jury, and then as a Calm Before the Storm. Neither of those may be a better beginning, but comparing them my give you a clue as to what you need to fix elsewhere before the story structure is sound.
- Confirm that you have an emotional hook and have given the reader a reason to sympathize with the character.
If after all of that you the beginning is wrong, go pick up a favorite book that you know really well. Read the first two pages of this other person’s book. What kind of beginning is it? Write your own, using one of the other types. Do this a few more times until you’ve managed to create three alternate beginnings for this other person’s novel that you believe might work to hook the reader. Now go back and re-read your story. Having made yourself write several openings for another story, you should have some fresh insight into openings. If anything comes to mind now, give it a go.
Finally, it is vitally important to remember this: there is no such thing as a perfect opening line. But there are hundreds if not thousands of good enough opening lines. There are slightly fewer good, maybe great opening lines. It won’t be the end of the world if you wind up putting a story out there into the world with a good enough opening line. And chances are, after you’ve done all this work, your opening might be closer to greatness than merely good.
And you should never feel ashamed of writing that is “merely” good.
A few weeks back I started this series (part 1, part 2, part 3) referencing a running gag from the movie Throw Momma From the Train, where one writer is hung up on his opening line, trying hundreds of variants of “The night was…” instead of just concentrating on the story itself, then fixing the opening later. The opening is important, of course. When your story is published, you won’t be there to whisper in the reader’s ear “It gets really good once it gets moving. Keep reading and scroll down. It’ll be worth it.” Your opening line (and paragraph, and scene) must do that for you.
The three classic openings are:
- Into pot, already boiling.
- The calm before the storm.
- Opening statement to the jury.
Let’s look at each type:
Into Pot, Already Boiling
With an Into Pot, Already Boiling opening, you begin with something happening. In the first post I made on this topic, I called this method “when the protagonist is hit in the head with brick.” In that post, I talked about the classmate who buried the best opening line for his sports story on page 11: “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.” Into the pot already boiling doesn’t have to be an action-packed opening, there doesn’t have to be violence or fighting or even danger. For example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s short story, “Are These the Actual Miles” is:
Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it. Toni is smart and has personality. She used to sell children’s encyclopedias door to door. She signed him up, even though he didn’t have kids. Afterward, Leo asked her for a date, and the date led to this. This deal has to be cash, and it has to be done tonight.
Or how about this opening from Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud:
The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four fleet shadows dark against the wall. The fall was high, the ground was hard; they made no more sound on impact than the pattering of rain.
Or this classic from Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman:
Jacob Fielding stood in a small room and stared at a body.
This is the kind of opening that most people think off when they talk about a narrative hook. The advantages are that you engage the reader’s curiosity right away. This disadvantage is that you have to balance filling in background with keeping the story moving forward. The more intriguing the opening is, the more leeway the reader will give you in filling in those details. This kind of opening can work for any story, but it is particularly good for a story when most of the plot is driven by the external conflict.
The Calm Before the Storm
With the Calm Before the Storm you show the readers a situation that isn’t obviously a conflict. It seems like a perfectly ordinary day, at first. It’s okay to start by lingering over details–though you should at least hint that there is something else going on. If you hint that something is amiss, the reader will stick through the detail to find out what it all means. But you have to know that something is going to happen, you have to have those hints, and you need to stick to details that create a context for what’s going to happen. For example, the opening to Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front:
We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another mess-tin full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. That puts a man in a fine trim. We have not had such luck as this in a long time. The cook with his carroty head is begging us to eat; he beckons with his ladle to every one that passes, and spoons him out a great dollop. He does not see how he can empty his stewpot in time for coffee.
The hints are there: five miles behind the front, we have not had such luck in a long time. The reader knows that this peaceful situation can’t last. But this opening also demonstrates another trick of this kind of opening. The reader comes to a story expecting something to happen, for the character to have some kind of problem. So more you emphasize how good things are, the more the reader will suspect you’re about to drop on anvil on someone.
That isn’t the only way to start with a scene which seems to be calm, but really portends something worse. Last week I quoted the beginning of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Let’s look at that one again:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Something is amiss, but it isn’t clearly anything serious. The narrator’s little sister had a nightmare and went to sleep in Mother’s bed. It’s only at the end of the paragraph that you get that ominous mention of the reaping.
The Calm Before the Storm can also work with almost any story, though it does go really well with tales where the plot is driven more by the internal conflict–stories where the reader often fears more for whether the character will remain true to their principles or loyal to their companions than whether they survive the external conflift.
Opening Statement to the Jury
The Opening Statement to the Jury is is the hardest one to pull off, because you begin by explaining, in at least an abstract way, what’s going to happen. It’s not unlike when a stage magician tells the audience what the trick is going to be before it happens. But it can be very rewarding if you pull it off. Because by beginning with the statement of your theme, you can also tell the reader’s what’s at stake, and what the conflict is going mean. One example comes to us from Edgar Allan Poe, as the opening line to his short story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”:
There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.
It’s a little abstract, but it can be very effective, especially if what is at stake is a moral dilemma or personal tragedy. I was shocked some years ago when a story I’d been struggling with the opening to for years (and the middle of the story also had some problems in each draft), finally crystallized around a statement to the jury. This is how I finally opened the short story, “The Throne of Osiris”:
It was Karaya’s gift and curse to know the feelings of others better than her own. Perhaps this is what had first drawn her to Faust, in the months after he joined the crew. Despite the considerable talents of the geneticists who designed her, and the battery of experts who had trained her to derive reams of information from the subtlest nuances of body language, Faust had been opaque.
I tell you Karaya’s tragic flaw in the opening sentence, then distract you with those other details, so that as the plot of the tale unfolds, you almost forget the opening line. Until you reach the end of the story, and realize exactly what that opening sentence meant.
An Opening Statement to the Jury can be especially effective in a tragedy. Though I don’t necessarily mean where everyone dies. In my story, for instance, the external conflict is resolved victoriously: the protagonist and all the the supporting characters survive, the villains are defeated, and the population of an entire planet is saved. But, in the end, the protagonist fails to realize something important, and her internal conflict remains unresolved, though the reader has little doubt that that part of her tale is going to eventually lead to tragedy.
And that gets us to the main type of story you should consider this sort of opening for: if what the story is really about is something bigger than either the external conflict alone or the internal conflict alone.
How Do You Choose?
Remember what I said back in part 1, don’t make the mistake of trying to pick the perfect opening at the beginning, and don’t spin your wheels because you don’t know whether you have the perfect opening. In the first draft, just go with what first came to you and keep going until you reach the end. Then, as soon as you do, flip back to the beginning and read your opening once more. Does it still work with your ending? If not, analyze your opening a bit. Figure out which category it fits, then try writing a new opening paragraph or so of each of the other types. Is one of them better?
Spend some time thinking about what drives your plot. Is your story primarily concerned with the internal or external conflict? Is there something bigger going on? Give each a try, and see how those read.
If, after reading these four blog posts and following all the advice leaves you without a killer opening, then what? Well, we’ll talk about that next week!
Two weeks ago I started the discussion about beginnings in fiction by referencing a great running gag in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. I’ve covered when (in time) to start the story (The Night Was Sultry, part 1), and how to select an internal conflict to go with the external plot (The Night Was Sultry, part 2). In other words, we’ve talked about the narrative hook and setting the stakes.
But in addition to the narrative hook, you need an emotional hook.
Last week when I talked about the internal conflict, that was in relationship to how the protagonist feels about the process, what they care about, and what is going to drive them to solve the problem. While that involves the protagonist’s feelings, it isn’t what I mean by emotional hook. The emotional hooks is the answer to this question: why should the reader care about the protagonist’s success or failure? And most importantly, why should they care from the beginning?
The narrative hook engages the reader’s curiosity, but the emotional hook engages the reader’s heart. You want the reader to root for your protagonist to succeed, and to do that the reader has to care—the reader has to find redeeming qualities in your protagonist, something the reader will sympathize and/or identify with. This doesn’t mean that your lead character must be a paragon of virtue, or obviously heroic. Just that they are worth the reader’s time.
Two weeks ago I talked about a couple of notorious bad ways to begin a story, one of which is the dreaded alarm clock going off. The problem with that beginning isn’t that there is inherently something wrong with beginning with your protagonist waking up for the day, but that generally that sort of beginning doesn’t involve the character interacting with anyone or anything important. But, there are ways to start with the character waking up that do intrigue the reader, hint at the stakes, and deliver the emotional hook. And a particularly brilliant and sneaky one is this opening paragraph:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
You may recognize that as the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Just take a moment to marvel at the first sentence: ‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.’ You have no idea who this character is, but you infer that there should be someone in bed with the character, but they are missing. Who is it? What is their relationship to the narrator? If they’re sharing a bed, does that mean they are romantically involved? And why are they missing?
In the next sentence you get a name, but you also get the detail of the rough canvas cover of the mattress. Not a satin sheet—not any sheet at all. They sleep directly on the mattress cover, which implies things about their circumstances, probably indicating that they are poor, or at least struggling.
In the third sentence, ‘She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.’ Now we know it is a sibling, not a lover, and since they are sharing a bed in the home shared with their mother, they are probably fairly young. But also that guess at bad dreams tells us that our narrator knows the sibling cares enough to understand the sibling’s likely state of mind. This isn’t one of those sibling relationships where one resents the other or things of the other as a nuisance. The narrator’s first thought on waking is to notice their sibling is missing and to reach for them, tells us that the narrator cares, right?
Then we finally get to the ‘day of the reaping.’ We don’t know what that means, yet, but since it gives Prim nightmares, we can assume it doesn’t mean harvesting grain or vegetables.
By the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’ve been hooked, you have an idea of what the stakes of the story might be, and you know that the narrator is someone who cares about their sister. You still don’t know the name or even gender of the narrator (you might infer that only sisters would share a bed, but that’s not necessarily so), but it’s likely that by the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’re both curious enough and are beginning to suspect this character is worth caring about—at least enough to read for a few more pages.
How do you create the emotional hook? You do it by spending some time thinking about what your character cares about. Think about their admirable qualities. This may seem difficult at first if you’re telling a tragedy or a tale centered on an anti-hero, but remember that the character isn’t expected to be perfect, merely someone that the reader can identify and sympathize with. Who or what does your character love? What or who would they risk their life for? Who do they feel loyal to?
Once you’ve spent some time thinking about the protagonist’s yearnings and fears in a general sense, bring it back in: look at your narrative hook—the moment the brick hits your character. Ask yourself: before the brick hits the character, what are things they care about at that point in their life? Who does the protagonist care about? Were there any urgent matters on their mind before this issue surfaced? What does your protagonist worry about (and what will they worry about once the issue arrives)? What brings them joy at this point in their life? Who or what would they be happy to see?
Think about all of those things, then write a paragraph or two describing what is going on inside your character’s mind. This is before the brick, so don’t write about how they will feel once they realize that they are in a plot. You’re trying to get yourself into the head of the character without the conflict.
After you do that. Look at the opening sentences you had already written. Is there any hint of these things going on in the character’s head in there? Do you find yourself wanting to rephrase a couple of sentences now that you’ve been trying to think like your character? The emotional hook is about nuance and color. Look back at the example I pulled from Hunger Games, see how the narrator’s feelings are only hinted at in each sentence. That’s what you’re going for when you’re laying the emotional hook.
It’s something that is hard to plan. You have to feel your way into it. But doing so makes it much more likely that you will continue to write your character in a way that keeps the reader’s sympathies.
And that keeps them turning pages!
Now, once you’ve figured all of this out, how do you decide whether the opening you have is working? We’ll talk about that next week!