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.
Now the sad part is that we were doing this specifically because we’re both working on hall costumes for NorWesCon (at the end of March). My husband actually found things for one of his costumes, but what did I find? Well, I found a copy of the 1951 edition of the World Publishing Company’s New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Yes, that whole thing was the official title. This was one of the dictionaries produced after the legal ruling that found the Merriam-Webster Company could not prevent other companies from using Noah Webster’s name on their dictionaries even though they weren’t actually using Webster’s original dictionaries nor operating under the auspices of the agreement made between Mr. Webster’s estate and George and Charles Merriam back in 1843.
The World Publishing Company only produced this edition, a two-volume version, and a slightly revised 1953 edition before selling out to Macmillan Publishing USA. This dictionary, while being labeled “unabridged” and spanning approximately 2300 pages isn’t exactly one of the most highly regarded, given that a third of that page count is actually a desk encyclopedia, and the editorial staff hadn’t been working on it for as long as some of the more storied dictionaries. Which isn’t to say that it’s a poorly made dictionary.
But its primary claim to fame is that the editorial staff for this edition was headed up by Professor Harold Whitehall, of the University of Indiana. Whitehall was an interesting choice to edit an American dictionary because Whitehall was British. Whitehall was born in 1905 in Ramsbottom, Lancashire, England. He got his first degree at Nottingham University, studied for a while after at London University, before coming to the U.S. where he obtained is Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He taught at the University of Iowa, at the University of Wisconsin, and Queen’s College New York, before settling at the University of Indiana where he spent the rest of his academic career. While he was at Michigan, he served as assistant editor of a Dictionary of Middle English (the English spoken during the 12th, 13th, and 14th Centuries), which was probably why he was recruited by the World Publishing Company.
And why it’s important that Whitehall worked on this dictionary is, that while the number of words and depth of the definitions weren’t on a par with other unabridged dictionaries of the time, the New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary had the most thorough etymologies of any America-published dictionaries published up to that date. Because linguistics—specifically the history and derivation of our language—was Whitehall’s passion.
When Macmillan acquired most of the World Publishing Company, they already had a staff of dictionary editors, but they asked Whitehall to stay on, created the post of Linguistics Editor for him, and they released several more editions of this dictionary for subsequent years, before the company was acquired by another publisher in 1998, who sold off the reference division to yet another company in 1999 and so on. Whitehall stopped working for them some time before 1960, though he continued to teach English and Linguistics at the University of Indiana until his death in 1986.
In honor of my finally acquiring my own copy of this dictionary famous for bringing a new level of etymological rigor to American dictionaries, this is a perfect time to talk about why understanding when your dictionary was created and how it is being maintained is important. Don’t assume that just because there are lots of free dictionaries available on the internet that anyone started with a high quality source or experts are keeping it up to date. And this is important because the language is a living thing that changes over time.
For instance, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). As the 1951 edition puts it (shown in the picture above I took the other night):
“ter-rif’ic, a [L. terrificus, from terrere, to frighten and facere, to make.] Dreadful; causing terror; adapted to excite great fear or dread; as a terrific form; a terrific sight.”
How did the word come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. People used it sarcastically to refer to something that wasn’t horrifying at all—quite the opposite—and people hearing that usage while not being familiar with the word themselves inferred its meaning from context. And soon everyone was using terrific as a synonym for “wonderful” instead of “horrible.”
Notice from the image above, there is no other definition given. If we jump ahead to one of my 1987 dictionaries, for instance, we find the primary definition being “causing great fear or terror”, the second as “remarkable or severe” and only the third definition, marked informal is “very good or wonderful.” Whereas my 2001 Oxford New American Dictionary lists the “causing terror” definition as archaic, but even then, the primary definition is “of great size, amount or intensity,” and the second sense of “extremely good or excellent” is still listed as informal. Although that may be because the editorial board of the Oxfords include a lot of British people. Most of my American published dictionaries from the late 90s on list something along the lines of “extraordinarily good” as the primary definition.
But this is part of the reason I am obsessed with dictionaries and how they are made. I have watched the meanings of some words change in my lifetime. It’s important to know this happens, particularly if you ever read books or stories written many years ago.
Some words don’t mean what they used to. That’s not a bad thing, but it can cause some confusion and consternation from time to time. Did I mention, that while consternation now means “feelings of anxiety or dismay” that is once used to mean “terrified”?
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.
“Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.
Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”
This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.) The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.” My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
I included the above quote from Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent book on writing in my tribute to Le Guin last week. It’s a quote I’ve been meaning to use in a blog post about fake grammar rules for a while, and now seems like a good time.
There are rules of grammar and learning them is important. However, it is also important to recognize that not everything someone tells you is a rule actually is. There are a number of so-called grammar rules that people have been passing down from generation to generation in schools, writers’ groups, and so on that simply are wrong. Some of them are due to a misunderstanding that has become common enough that people adopt it as a rule. Others have been the result of a small group of Latin scholars attempting to force a convention from the Latin language on to English out of a belief that Latin is somehow a purer language.
Others are a bit more complicated.
English pronouns are such a case. It wasn’t that many centuries ago that people had to keep track of more pronouns. The King James Version of the Bible was translated during a time when English speakers used thee, thou, you, ye, they, thine, their, and so forth. There were circumstances where it was incorrect to address someone as you rather than thou, and it generally came down to your social relationship. You use thou when addressing someone who was socially inferior, and you the other way around. This wasn’t just about class. Parents would use thou when talking to their children, for example, and children would use you when addressing parents and so forth. One also used thou for people with whom you were intimate—and I’m not talking about sex, this would be with close friends and so forth (though also one’s fiance or spouse would be appropriate, obviously).
Thee was the objective form of thou—this is parallel to the distinction between me and I which still exists in the language today. Ye was the plural form of you.
So what happened to all of those extra pronouns? We slowly stopped using them. Thou starting going away in the 17th and 18th Century in London as changing socio-economical norms started making it harder to tell which social class people were in. You didn’t want to offend someone who ought to be addressed as you by saying thou! I mention London specifically because etymologists have tracked where and when thou fell out of usage. There are regional dialects in England today where thou is still used, and they all occur in corners of the nation furthest from London.
Now let’s look at they. Lots of people object to using the singular they. It comes up frequently now because as transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary people embrace their identities some ask us to use different pronouns. A transgender person who was assigned male at birth may ask their friends, family, and acquaintances to stop using he/him/his and start using she/her/hers, for instance. And some people aren’t comfortable with either of those and ask us to they/them/their. This makes some other people uncomfortable.
It makes some people so uncomfortable that they post rants about it on their academic blogs, railing against the singular they in one paragraph, and hilariously using a singular they in another.
The truth is, they has been both singular and plural for at least 675 years. That’s how long ago dictionaries have found samples of they being used in both the singular and the plural. Merriam-Webster cites examples from Chaucer (14th Century), Shakespeare (17th Century), Jane Austen (18th Century), Lord Byron (18th and 19th Century), and the King James Bible (17th Century) of the singular they.
So the first answer to people citing this rule is to inform them it isn’t a rule of English grammar and never has been.
The second is to point to that history of the decline of thou in favor of you. An entire language shifted because people didn’t want to accidentally offend each other. In other words, there is a precedent for adapting English usage to accommodate our mutual sensibilities.
And finally, the third answer is that after being informed of the above two facts, anyone who continues to raise a fuss about using the singular they to refer to someone after being asked to use it is doing so out of a feeling of discomfort due to bigotry. And none of the rest of us are under any obligation to put up with bigoted jerks.
Or, as someone else put it:
This modern world is full of quandaries and conundra, isn’t it? On the one hand, you have human people with human feelings, and on the other hand, you have an entirely insentient entity, the English language, which is wholly incapable of being hurt or offended in any way. Obviously you don’t want to upset either camp, but which do you prioritize? Living, breathing people — members of a systemically and institutionally marginalized minority — who have specifically identified the pronouns that people like you are to use for them so as to avoid causing the exact kind of offense that you profess to be concerned about committing? Or a theoretical concept that not only has no way of knowing whether you’ve used it incorrectly but in fact changes so rapidly that the notion of “correct” is functionally moot anyway, not to mention that being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication? You’re in a mighty fucking pickle, here!
—Bad Advice On Grammar-Policing Gender-Neutral Pronouns via The Establishment
I am, indeed, one of those people who think there is a song from a musical for every situation. Some people consider this a stereotypical gay thing, but I know way more gay people who never liked theatre (musical or otherwise) than do (and there are plenty of straight people writing, performing, or buying tickets to Broadway musicals and the like). Oh, yes, there are arguments made about the kind of misfit who is drawn to the exaggerated and colorful worlds portrayed in musical theatre, and that’s why there are enough queer people into it to create the stereotype. But I think there’s more than a little bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that.
Regardless, I have a lot of musical soundtracks in my music collection, along with orchestral scores for my favorite movies and TV shows. And I have been known to surf to TuneFind.com while watching something when a particularly good piece of music is used to accompany a scene in one of my favorite shows, so I can buy a copy of the song for myself. And I’ve blogged before about how I create playlists specifically for certain writing projects.
I’ve had more than one friend comment, upon seeing the list of songs in one of my play lists, “How can you write while listening to songs with lyrics?” First, if a song has wound up in one of my playlists, it’s usually a song I’m already familiar enough with that I don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to parse the meaning of the song. Even with very voice-forward songs, while I’m writing I’m not processing the music as words, but as mood music.
Second, if a song is fairly new to me—I heard it for the first time, liked it a lot, bought it, and added it to my current writing playlist—I may pause while writing the next time it comes up. Far more likely, I will have heard the song a few more times before I’m next writing because I listen to the playlists at least as often when I’m not writing as when I am. While riding the bus to work, while working at my desk at my day job, while walking in the evening before heading home I’ll be listening to the current writing playlist, in part to get my subconscious working on the story while I’m dong these other things. I’m more likely to be in the mood to be productive on a personal writing project after a long workday if I’ve been listening to a playlist that I associate with the personal writing..
I need to make a small digression about my longer bus commute. I have tried several times to write on this bus route as I used to back on the Route D—the ride’s longer; I should be able to get more writing done! Unfortunately, the other difference is that the physical road seems to have a lot more potholes and irregularities. It’s really annoying, because the bouncing and dipping is pretty much constant. So there I am, holding my phone in my hand with one of my writing apps up but we’re constantly bouncing, so my thumbs keep hitting the wrong part of the screen. I get half a word typed and then get five incorrect letters in a cluster because of a particularly bad bounce, so I try to delete and there’s a bunch of smaller bounces and half my attempts to tap the backspace hit another key near it instead.
I can read (though sometimes that’s a little difficult). I can take notes. But when I’m writing, once my head is in the scene want to just get out this sentence and on to the next and the next. But I can’t get the flow going because of the dang bouncing. I tried to ignore the wrong letters and keep going one time, but I spent way more time correcting the gibberish once I got home and transferred it to the laptop that I realized bus writing is just not possible for most of the Route E.
Which has made the writing playlists take on a new importance. Since it is very difficult to write on the new bus route, what I do instead is listen to the current project’s playlist while either re-reading recently written scenes or going through my notes on the project.
One reason I have writing playlists is because music conveys emotion. It doesn’t just convey emotion, it generates emotion. When we hear a song we know well, it may remind us about a particular event, or a person, or just a time in our lives. And it doesn’t always have to be because we are remembering that song happening to accompany a particular memory. Sometimes a song that was written long after a particular event in your life manages, somehow, to evoke your memory of the experience.
Another reason I have writing playlists is going to sound strange to some. Dialog is, in my opinion, the heart of most stories. Dialog conveys information, and illustrates relationships of the people talking, and gives you a sense of the personalities of each speaker. A good dialog is like music. It isn’t just about the literal or contextual meaning of the words, but also the rhythm. Some phrases flow easily from one’s mouth, whereas badly written dialog will tie your tongue in a knot if you try to read it aloud. For me, listening to music while I write helps me find rhythms. The dialog just works better if I have a good set of songs going.
And another reason that I have writing lists is, I don’t like to write in silence. I can write in silence. But it’s difficult, sometimes. Maybe it’s because during my childhood, when I first started writing (I literally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at the age of six, and was regularly pounding out page after page of stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corono Silent Super typewriter by the age of ten) there was alway a lot of noise. Other people in the house doing things of their own. Dad watching a ballgame in the living room, while my sister was playing in her room and Mom was doing something in the sewing room. And there were often neighbors outside making noise.
And for a lot of those years I would be back in my room, with the door closed, tapping away on those keys with the radio playing as I tried to learn the magic of dialog that sounded like real people, and scenes that moved the story along. Sometimes, an especially good song would come up and I might have to stop typing to sing along. And yes, sometimes I got up and danced around my room as I did so. But when the song ended, I’d go back to the typewriter. Giddy with the joy of the dancing, and feeling renewed determination for my hero to save the day.
Songs never mean the same thing to other people. So sharing my playlists probably doesn’t help any of my friends write. Though I have had one or two of them say that they were glad I introduced them to a particular song or artist when I share a list. And I know I have found great new songs when other people share their own lists. But while it may be futile to expect that one of my playlists will effect you the way they do me, I’m going to share four songs from my current novel editing playlist. The full playlist is nearly 60 songs. These aren’t a representative sample, but they are particular favorites. Three of these songs I associate with a specific character in my fictional universe–evoking a particular aspect of their personality, or even expression something that character believes are feels. One of them describes the past relationship between a pair of characters.
Darling Lili– Whistling Away The Dark (HD) – JULIE ANDREWS :
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Mame – Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Bad Influence – P!nk (Music Video):
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Shrek 2 – Holding Out For a Hero – Jennifer Saunders:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
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
I’d really wanted to spend more of this month blogging about either fun holiday things or writing. Serious topics keep dominating, and while some of them have at least been holiday-related, it hasn’t exactly been Ho! Ho! Ho! time on this blog. That isn’t because I’m only thinking dark thinky thoughts, or even that I’ve been in a bad mood. Honestly, it’s mostly because I’m trying to get this year’s Christmas Ghost Story finished, as well as get everything else ready for the party, and finish Christmas shopping all while dealing with more than a few long days at work.
Which, admittedly, isn’t very different from any of the last 20-some Decembers.
This year’s Christmas Ghost Story had what I thought was a very straightforward plot. And it hasn’t been the plot that has been giving me trouble. But I keep writing dialog and then futzing with it because it’s wrong…
Why December is always bad in this way is because none of my usual methods of powering through a clogged story work. All of them are based on the philosophy that no matter how bad the first draft is, you can fix it in re-write. The Christmas Ghost Story is something that I will read to the attendees of our annual holiday party this Saturday. So I have to revise and fix as I go. At least, that’s how it feels.
Intellectually, I know that if I had just powered through and forced myself to write to the end two weekends ago, I would have had all this time to go through it and fix things. But that seldom works. I’m going to keep futzing until sometime Friday when the overwhelming knowled that I have to finish this now pushes me through to the end.
One thing that’s different this year than from previous: I didn’t make a new Ghost Story Playlist as the end of November. I know, I know, as if I need another playlist. I have so many (literally thousands).
I also haven’t been listening to as much of my usual Christmas music. Please note that I didn’t say as much Christmas music as usual, but rather as much OF my usual. Among my playlists are a bunch of holiday music lists that are usually my go-tos if I don’t have a craving to listen to a specific album. Playlists with names such as, A Caroling Caroling, A Class-ic Xmas, A Dame & Diva Christmas, Xmas Oddments, A Gay Yuletide, A Jazzy Christmas, A Quirk-y Christmas, A Silly Christmas, Last Bells for the Christmas Parade…
The problem when one has a Christmas collection as big as mine, is that it is easy to just listen to a few hundred favorites each year and ignore the 4500+ (I am not exaggerating) others. So, several years ago I made a Smart Playlist: all the songs tagged either Christmas or Holiday, and they have not been played in at least two years. I would listen to that list on shuffle for a while–usually only three or four days– and then start listening to other lists or specific albums most of the time. I would go back to the Smart List every now and then, usually when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to listen to.
The beauty of this list is that it shrinks as you listen to it. Once a song has played, it drops out of the list, because its Last Played Date is now, right? When I fired up the list a few days before the end of November, I was happy to see that it only had about 1600 songs–about a third of the collection. So I did a better job listening to a wider variety of my library that last couple of season, because usually it’s closer to half the collection. I started listening to the list, as usual, but instead of only listening to it for a few days, it was the primary source of my listening for nearly two weeks. Yeah, from time to time I’ve decided to listen to a specific album, but it wasn’t until this week that I started choosing some of my usual go-to lists. The upshot of all this is that the smart list only has a bit over 600 songs left in it. And that’s kind of amazing.
I’ve also been plugging away at wrapping presents. I got most of the presents for the relatives I was hand-delivering to finished before I drove down to Mom’s last Friday, and now I have about two-thirds of the presents for other people we’re giving stuff to, finished.
Just before Thanksgiving my husband found a 4-roll pack at Costco in which (as he described it when he texted me at the time) “all purple or penguins.” And since on the roll of cartoon penguins, some of the penguins have purple scarves, all of the wrap is purple. And it’s really good paper. Now I understand why I have heard people talk about the Costco paper (we didn’t get any of the reversible rolls). The paper is heavy enough to be sturdy, and it has the grid printed on the back so even I can cut nearly straight lines.
Now this is the first year in a long time that we needed to buy new paper. Not that not needing paper stopped us before! But we both had this bad habit of buying cute wrapping paper when we saw it in stores, and winding up with more gift wrap than we wound up using. So our stash of wrapping paper kept growing and growing. During the move, I looked at the stash (only half of it would fit in the special plastic wrap-storage thingie that my late husband bought 22-23 years ago) and realized that there were still some rolls in my collection that were also 22-23 years old. One of them was a particular design that Ray had gushed about when he bought, and for all the years since he died, I only used any paper off of it a few times–specifically when wrapping a present for his mother. Other years I will pull it out, think about how much Ray liked it and then decide not to use it because then I wouldn’t have it any more.
This is, by the way, extreme packrat pathology. I recognize it.
But it gets worse!
The other roll that had been hung onto that long was a design that I thought was really ugly–but Ray had bought it and thought it was beautiful and therefore while I never wanted to use it, I also wouldn’t get rid of it.
Which is packrat sociopathy or something!
I decided the storage container was aiding and abetting our worst packrat tendencies. It’s also kind of difficult to store, because all of this parts are rounded, and it has handles that stick out awkwardly, and the lid for the section where you’re supposed to store tape would pop open if you sneezed near it. So the storage thing and every roll of wrapping paper (and bags of bows and so forth) were all taken to Value Village.
The hope is that maybe we’ll be less likely to hang onto excess wrapping paper now that we’ve learned our lesson. Wish us luck!
I need to get back to my story…