First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.
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
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.
It was a struggle writing those scenes. I was literally crying while writing one. I’ve opined many times before that in order to write a character convincingly, there’s a part of you that has to believe the character is real. There’s some neuroscience to indicate that the part of our brain from which emotions and gut reactions originate literally cannot tell the difference between real people we know, and ficticious characters we become attached to. So it made sense, when (for plot purposes) some of my non-villain characters needed to die, that it would be upsetting.
In wrapping up the plot, some of the bad guys need to make a similar exit, and I find myself just as conflicted about writing those scenes. Again, it makes sense in that, in order to make them interesting characters, I have to see them as well-rounded people. They aren’t just bad for badness sake—they have reasons they believe that what they’re doing is justified.
But I can also see that it’s not just that I empathize with them. There is more than one kind of finality, here. Once I finish them off, once I complete this conflict and move to the denouement, there’s no turning back. Oh, yes, as the author, so long as the book hasn’t been published, I can go back and change things to go a completely different way. If I really want to, I can comepletely rewrite the entire book.
But… Once I actually write the scene, it’s harder. If the scene works, if it feels real as I write it, I’ve committed to this sequence of events as a viable way for the story to unfold. I can revise it, yes, but there will always be part of me that knows it could have gone this way. And unless an alternate scene that I think of gets written, and unless it feels as solid when I write it, the first version way will seem like the more likely option, the more real option.
At least as real as a fictional narrative can get.
So, as much as part of me is reluctant to kill off these next five characters slated for a big defeat, there is another part of me that’s just as reluctant to commit. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” a voice whispers from my subconscious. “There’s still time to go another way.”
The problem is, if I give in to this impulse for too long, it will become even more tempting to go back and undo a few things. “Why does that innocent character have to die?” The voice will ask. “Why does any of this have to happen?”
On one level, it’s my story and I can change anything I want.
On a completely different level, I’m its author, and it deserves to be told the best it can be. It’s fiction, but all fiction is about making sense of the world, of finding meaning in events big or small, profound or mundane, pleasant or unpleasant.
Contrary to what some will tell you, a fiction writer’s job is not to lie. A writer’s job is to tell the truth. And to tell it the best we can at the time.
So, I have to stop equivocating, stop spinning excuses for avoiding the tough part, and I need to tell this story, this discovery, this truth.
Some time back an acquaintance was ranting on-line about his pet peeve: people who criticized a movie by saying it had no plot. This was his pet peeve, he said, because it was impossible. “No matter how badly written or executed a movie is, something happens. So it has a plot!” He wasn’t very happy with me when I told him that he didn’t know what the word “plot” means, at least in regards to a narrative such as a play or novel.
The definition I usually cite is one common in books and articles about writing: “a plot is a problem, riddle, or obstacle that 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 which connects everything the happens between the beginning and ending.”
In other words, it’s not just that things happen, it’s that the events of the story need to be related. A well constructed story can appear to have a lot of chaotic things happening, but by the end the audience needs to feel that those seemingly random events meant something, or contributed to the character’s struggle. The whole point of a narrative—the whole reason humans tell each other stories—is to create meaning…