I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
I didn’t quite mean to go so long before continuing my series of blog posts about subplots; additionally I have also been meaning for years to do a post on some 3rd of June1 about the 1967 hit song, “Ode to Billie Joe” and its unusual singer/songwriter, Bobbie Gentry. Then, because another blogger who did remember on June three to write about the song and they linked to an excellent podcast about the singer, I realized there is a connection between the subjects of plotting and the song. So I’m a couple of days late, but let’s talk about a narrative device which is often intimately related to subplots: the MacGuffin!
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!
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.
I have written more than once about my annoyance with an oft-used trope when portraying writers as characters in movies, TV shows, on the like: specifically, that the only reason a particular novel or series of novels has so enraptured the readers is because the author has secretly based the story on real life and real characters. My annoyance with that is multi-fold, not the least because I truly believe the old adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You can’t tell a compelling story by slavishly recreating something that you experienced in real life. You weave an illusion that feels real from a combination of observation, interpellation, and omission. For example, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk—we omit parts that don’t move the story forward, or don’t flow easily off the tongue, or that will confuse the reader without the context of nonverbal cues.
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.