Avoid Confusing Subplots
writeintherain said: How many subplots are too many? In my book I’ve got this city guard who is working to quell rebellion, break up riots and fights amongst the civilians. At the same time her friend is a wanted criminal and she has to decide whether or not to turn him in and at the same time her other friend is struggling with alcoholism and someone else is grief-stricken from the death of his GF and at least four other things. How many subplots can I include before it all becomes too confusing for the reader?
There are no laws dictating how many subplots are to be allowed in a single piece of writing. You’re only really limited by your own ability to handle multiple subplots, and honing that ability takes practice. And practicing means you might fail.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Writing is a process. Failing is part of that process. The important part is that you try and keep trying.
Sometimes it takes a whole lot of effort to gain your confidence. You might have to work at crafting your subplots for a long time before you feel like you’ve truly braided them into your story with expert deftness.
Asking us for a number isn’t really going to help you because, as it turns out, we don’t know. We don’t know you as a writer, and we don’t know your story. You’ve got to figure out what works. In the end, only you can decide what’s best for your story.
So, how many subplots can you include before it all becomes too confusing? It depends on your story, your style, your skill. And it depends on how many times you are willing to try and fail before you succeed.
Some things to keep in mind about subplots:
- Subplots should (almost) always relate to the main plot. Don’t just throw in a load of subplots that have nothing to do with the main one, even if they all center around the main character. Everything you write needs to aid in telling your story. Everything is interconnected.
- Stay Organized. Make a plan for your plot and subplots. Write notes to yourself when you make changes, and refer to your plan often to keep yourself on the right track.
- Write to your own standards, but get feedback. If you want to have a story chocked-full of subplots, go ahead, but use your own gauge of plot fluidity. If it is a jumbled, unorganized mess and confuses even you, the author, it will most likely confuse your readers as well. Similarly, even if you think your plot and your subplots are moving along swimmingly, have others read your story to double check.
- Don’t Give Up. If you notice or your beta or best friend or grandma notifies you that the story is confusing, that doesn’t mean you ought to scrap the project. There’s always room to improve. Rework the plots. Ask what specifically was confusing, and then return to the work and reassess based on their feedback.
- Adding Subplots to a Novel
- Filler Scenes, Subplots, Fluff Scenes, and Tension
- All About Subplots
- Hit Me With Your Best Subplot
- Subplots by All Write - Fiction Advice
- 7 Ways to Add Great Subplots
- Connecting Subplots with Each Other and the Main Story Arc: How Can This Work?
- Weave Subplots into Your Novel
- Top 10 Tips to Create Subplots for Your Story
- How to Add Meaningful Subplots to Your Novel
- How many subplots in a novel are acceptable?
- 25 Turns (Chuck Wendig)
Thanks for your question!
The problems of writing
- Having a Beginning
- Having an Ending
- But WHERE’S THE MIDDLE?!?
- HOW DO I GET TO THE ENDING
- WHAT IS A PLOT
- WHAT ARE PLOT DETAILS
- WHAT IS WRITING
And most importantly:
- HOW DO I TITLE
So we’ve discussed why you need an agent (if you want to publish traditionally) and how not to get an agent. But now I want to talk about picking the right agent for you.
So here’s the thing about literary agents: the legit ones are all publishing savvy, business-minded, all around nice people who just really love books. Or at least, the ones I’ve come in contact with are. Every agent (like every person) has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, which often dictate what genres they do and don’t represent. And knowing those strengths and weaknesses is just a teensie bit important to know before you query.
That’s right. You need to research agents before you start querying. Why? The answer’s simple, really—not every agent is the right agent for you.
Some agents are editorial, some agents are not. Some agents represent a huge range of genres, some are much more focused on a couple genres and categories. Some agents have been in the business for over a decade, others are much newer to the publishing game.
I’ve already blogged about where to go to research agents (see that link above? Click it), so I’m not going to delve into that again. What I want to focus on instead, is what you need to be looking for when deciding what agents to query.
There are a couple questions you should be asking yourself while researching agents:
- Does this agent represent my genre? This is the basic filter—the very first requirement is to make sure the agent you’re considering querying represents the genre and category your manuscript falls under. If they don’t, don’t query them. No exceptions.
No, it doesn’t matter if you think they might make an exception for your manuscript (they shouldn’t and they won’t). No, it doesn’t matter if you really like that agent (that doesn’t change the fact that your MS is not a genre they represent). No, it doesn’t matter if your manuscript is supposedly unlike others in its genre or category (if you think that’s the case, are you sure you know that genre as well as you think you do?)—if they don’t represent your genre, do not query them. You’ll get an insta-reject, and you’ll only be wasting your time and theirs.
Note: if you’re not sure what genre your manuscript falls under, check out this post.
- Does this agent represent other genres I want to (or already do) write in? This is important, because you’re not just looking for representation for the manuscript you’re querying—you’re looking for representation for your whole career. Ideally, you’ll have the same agent throughout your career (though that isn’t always the case, which is okay). If your manuscript is a Historical Fantasy and you know going in that you also love writing Sci-Fi, make sure the agents you query represent both Historical Fantasies and Sci-Fi’s.
Why? You want an agent who can potentially sell any manuscript you write, and if you write in multiple genres, you’ll want to make sure the agents you query represent all of them.
- Is this agent editorial? Is this important to me? As I’ve mentioned before, not all agents are editorial (meaning not all agents go through the extra process of revising and editing your work with you before going on submission). This is an extra job, and agents are not required to edit your work (remember: it’s your job to get your manuscripts as polished as possible before sending it to agents). If you know you want an agent who will help you with some of the revision and editorial process, then make sure you query agents who are editorial. (You can find this out through interviews and sites like Literary Rambles).
- What is this agent’s sales record? Do they have a lot of sales? A few things to remember with this one: not having a lot of sales doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is a bad agent. Some agents don’t report all of their sales, and some agents don’t have a lot of sales because they’re new agents, which is totally fine (and in that case, you’ll want to look at the sales for the agency they’re at, instead). But if an agent has been around for a couple of years, they should have some sales reported.
That being said, how much stock you put into the sales thing is up to you. When I was querying, I personally didn’t query anyone who didn’t list sales or their clients, but that’s just me.
- What is this agent’s reputation? What is the reputation of their agency like? Both of these are important to consider when researching agents. If the agent is established, what is their reputation like? If they’re new agents what is the reputation of their agency? (Note: it’s important to check on agency reputation for established agents, too). Check interviews, forums like Absolute Write Water Cooler and sites like Preditors & Editors as well as the aforementioned Literary Rambles to learn about agent and agency reputation.
- Does this agent seem like someone I would work well with? Granted, this is a little more difficult to determine online, but if the agent has a Twitter, follow them long before you start querying. Also, take the time to read every interview you can find—both of these sources can give you insights into the agent’s personality and what their work process is like. There are a couple agents, for example, that I decided I wouldn’t query based off things they said or the way they behaved on Twitter—after all, if your personalities clash, it’s going to make the relationship between you and you future agent more difficult.
Finally, two rules to remember while querying:
- Thou shalt not query every agent known to man. Use the criteria above to narrow down your list to agents that would work well for you and your manuscript. Consider every agent you query carefully. Think, if they offered representation, would I accept? If your answer is “no” then there’s little point in querying—you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
- A bad agent is worse than no agent. I’ve often heard of writers jumping to accept the first offer the get, just because they finally get an offer of representation. I understand this temptation, but the fact is, a bad agent will not help your career. Make sure you do plenty of research on every agent you query, and even more research on every agent who reads your full, and even more research on every agent who offers representation. Know what you’re getting into ahead of time to avoid unfortunate circumstances later on down the road.
What tips do you have for choosing the right agent?
So You Want To Write A Book..
- Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?
- On Inspiration
- How To Write A Novel
- Getting Started With A Book
- Hints About Writing A Story
- Novel Outlining 101
- From Notes To Novel
- Plotting A Novel
- Why Don’t I Have A Plot, And Where Do I Get One?
- How To Create A Character
- Creating Characters
- Character Creation
- Name That Character! (2)
- You And Your Characters
- How To Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep
- How To Use Foreshadowing
- How To Write Dialogue (2)
- How To Make Your Writing More Interesting
- Writing Block
- How To Get Unstuck
- Advice For Young Writers (2)
- On Word Counts And Novel Length
- Top 4 Ways to Know Your Idea is Novel-Worthy
- How A Book Gets Published
- How Do You Go About Getting Published
And remember: Google is your best friend.
How to Write About Death
If you’re a writer, there’s a BIG chance you’re going to kill off one of your characters eventually. Obviously being able to do this isn’t the same as experiencing death in real life, but it’s still something you need to think about and prepare for. Killing off characters should have some consequences to either your main characters or the plot of your story. If someone dies in your story, the loss must mean something to one of your characters. Don’t use death a cheap plot device to move your story forward.
Writing about the TOPIC of death can be a different story. If you’re writing about a character who is terminal and who we know is going to die, you need to know how to approach it with understanding. Writing about terminal cancer or a specific disease that you might not know everything about unless you’ve experienced it requires research. Don’t act like you know what it’s like to have something or the emotions that go into it. Don’t just “guess” what it might be like.
Here are a few tips on writing convincing death scenes:
Don’t cheapen a character’s death
If an important character dies, sometimes authors decide to bring that character back to life. Killing off characters and then finding a way to bring them back lessens the severity of death. Why should your readers care about what happens to your characters if they know nothing bad is going to happen to them? If you want to bring a character back to life make sure there’s a good reason for it.
Not everyone’s story will come together perfectly
Writing a good death scene isn’t about tying up someone’s story perfectly. People often die suddenly with no real time to “fix” things or say something to someone they love. Sometimes there’s more of an emotional impact when a character is not given the chance to change something about their life before it’s too late. Not everyone will be able to speak important or profound last words, so keep that in mind.
Everyone experiences loss differently
There’s no standard way for someone to deal with loss, so every person will deal with it differently. Obviously there will be unhealthy ways to deal with death, but it’s not abnormal for someone to not want to talk about it or for someone to be super emotional about it. Make sure you figure out who your characters are first and how they’d approach the situation.
Writing about death is probably so popular because it’s really about the discovery and appreciation of life. Some of the best stories make you analyze your own life and realize the blessings that you already have. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about and it doesn’t come off as disingenuous. Some people have actually experienced what you’re writing a fictional account of, so be respectful.
The problems of writing
- Having a Beginning
- Having an Ending
- But WHERE’S THE MIDDLE?!?
- HOW DO I GET TO THE ENDING
- WHAT IS A PLOT
- WHAT ARE PLOT DETAILS
- WHAT IS WRITING
And most importantly:
- HOW DO I TITLE
50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Part IV)
Quick summary of essential writing strategies based on Roy Peter Clark’s podcast Roy’s Writing Tools (based on his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer). This is Part IV with strategies 31-40. Part III is here. Part V will follow.
Strategy 31: Build your work around a key question
Stories need an engine – a question that the action answers for the reader. Whodunnit? Which man will she marry? Will the hero escape? Will the body be found?
Bad example from a newspaper report about a man hired as a greeter at a new Walmart: “Charles Burns has been waiting for weeks to say three words: ‘Welcome to Walmart!’ When the doors open this morning at St. Petersburg’s first Walmart Supercenter, Burns’ face will be one of the first that shoppers see. He is the greeter.” – Problem: This feature was written the day before the opening. Thus, he never greets anybody, and the story has no engine. We don’t know how his first day went, what responses he got from the first customer, how his expectations matched the experience, etc.
Good writers anticipate the reader’s questions and answer them!
Reverse-Engineering Your Character Arc
lunabeck said: Hello! I did try looking around, but all questions on character development tend to be about HOW to develop them. my problem is a bit different. because i know her development, and how she is at the end of the story and all that, I keep writing her like that in the beginning. so pretty much I’m having trouble writing her BEFORE the she changes cause i keep writing her like she already had everything happen to her. I’m sorry its confusing, thank you!!!
Thank you for your question, lunabeck!
I’d spend some time figuring out what changes will be made to this character over the course of the story and why these changes are made. Where along the plotline of the story does your character acquire some of these changes you’re talking about? Why do these changes occur? What was your character like before the changes?
Examples? You betcha!
So let’s say that your character (let’s call her Tara) feels a certain way about this guy Bert at the end of the story. She likes him. Cool. Did Tara always like Bert? Is it a worthy plot point to make her not like Bert at some time before the end of the story? If so, what changed her mind?
Perhaps Tara met Bert at the beginning of the story and they totally started off on the wrong foot. Maybe Bert insulted Tara’s friend. Maybe Bert had had a few too many Long Island Iced Teas and acted foolishly. Fair enough. It happens to the best of us. Over the course of the story, Tara has to grow to like Bert, though, right? Because at the end of the story, she likes him, and we know that going in. So what changes?
Bert could get a kitten. Everyone likes kittens. Then maybe Bert helps Tara move. That’s always endearing. Maybe Bert apologizes to Tara for insulting her friend, and Tara realizes that she’s been super hard on Bert for months over some tiny thing. Maybe this interaction puts Tara into an introspective mood, and she finally understands how judgemental she can be toward strangers because of her own fear of inadequacy. Then she and Bert move forward as equals in their friendship. Roll Credits.
The point is that Tara doesn’t always have to have liked Bert. It might actually be more interesting if they don’t start off as besties, you know? Tension between characters is conflict, and conflict drives stories. Maybe play around with what changing relationships might do for Tara’s character arc. If she likes Bert when she didn’t before, how has that changed her emotionally? How would such a change affect her reactions to events in the beginning of the story versus the end of the story?
Maybe Tara moonwalks her way through the story as a kind, generous person and an epic dancer. That’s fantastic (and definitely fun to have at parties), but it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if Tara starts off sort of dull and rude? And she can’t dance. Lame.
Basically, what if Beginning-of-the-Book Tara and End-of-the-Book Tara are exact opposites? How could you make that a thing?
What events would have to occur in the story to change Tara from rude and dull to kind and generous, from a non-dancer to an epic dancer?
Maybe she starts going to therapy to figure out how to transform her critical eye into a force for good instead of evil. Instead of valuing the short-lived high that comes from commenting on other people’s shortcomings, Tara could teach herself to use that critical eye to identify problems and her considerable intellect to work with others on creating solutions. Boom. Rudeness into kind generosity.
Now, a change like this could take the whole story to evolve properly. This isn’t a one-trip-to-the-therapist change; this is a life-altering choice Tara has to make. It needs space. It needs time.
What about the dancing, you ask? Well, have her take lessons. (That sort of takes care of the dullness, too. Everyone needs a hobby!) Maybe dance class is where she meets Bert!
(These are, of course, extreme examples. Most character arcs are slightly more nuanced than this.)
If you’ve already got a character that is, in your mind, a finished project, it’s worthwhile to spend some time slowly unbraiding that character. Where do they seem weakest in terms of personality? How can you exploit these flaws in the beginning of the story? What personal or external struggles would cause even a subtle change in their personality?
At the end of the story, Tara, your character, is still human. If, say, Tara went from being incredibly ungrateful to counting her blessings, it is very rarely so drastic a change. Those are the kind of changes you really only see in articles about character development because they make for the clearest examples. They seem forced, inhuman even. It is more likely that if Tara starts off the story being incredibly ungrateful, she will still struggle with being ungrateful at the end of the story, if only internally. After all, the only type of finished person is a dead person.
So if you have an end-of-the-book character in your mind and you’re trying to chart her journey, and maybe she has a habit of taking things for granted, or struggles with it a little, you can trace this character trait back to when it was at its worst and start there. You might even think about mapping out Tara’s development. Creating a map might help you visualize your character’s development vs. the story’s progression if that is where your trouble lies. It might help with timing and syncing up development with events in the story with each step of the character arc.
Essentially what you’re doing with character arcs is throwing rocks (story events) at a wall (the character) over a given period of time (the story). The rocks chip the paint. They crack the moulding. They dent the drywall. Eventually, if the rock is big enough or you throw enough little rocks at one spot on the wall, you’ll make a hole. At that point, the wall is changed forever. Even patching the hole won’t be perfect, and a patch can’t ever undo the fact that there was once a hole.
To reverse-engineer a character arc, figure out the chips and cracks and holes in the wall of your character, then find rocks that seem to match and decide how to throw them.
Thanks again for your question!
-C and Hannah (theroadpavedwithwords)