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August 25, 2015

Tangents and Subplots: When Do They Work?

Shopping cart in the woods with text: Is This Scene Out of Place?

My worksheets page is most often recommended for my beat sheets, but one of the other tools I share is the Elements of a Scene Checklist. The checklist (or the matching worksheet for use with multiple scenes) helps us identify whether a scene is truly necessary and contributing to our story.

Occasionally, I’ll receive questions about some of the elements on the list, like “what counts as character development?” I have no proof, but I suspect at least some of those questions come from writers who want to justify keeping a scene that might be borderline, such as filled with a backstory information dump. *smile*

“My scene involves my main character going off about his mother. That reveals something about him, so that’s character development, right?”

Some literary fiction authors write navel-gazing stories filled with pointless tangents and details, but for the rest of us, we want our stories to keep a reader’s attention, which means everything should have a point.

The Elements of a Scene Checklist is about making sure the scenes, conflicts, exposition, dialogue, etc. in our story have a purpose.

The same judgment criteria can apply to subplots as well. We know plenty of stories where subplots work, but sometimes they can feel like they’re taking away from the main story.

So how can we make sure our tangents and subplots are adding to the story and not acting as a distraction?

When Is a Tangent Not a Tangent?

Let’s start first with the example of the maybe-tangent above. Tangents are smaller than subplots, so by understanding when the former works, we might also gain a better understanding of when subplots work for a story.

For the above example, I’d turn the question around and ask why the main character’s relationship with the mother was important to the story? Does it contribute to…:

  • The Main Plot: Is the story about the healing or other type of resolution of their relationship?
  • A Subplot: Is a subplot about their relationship?
  • The Conflict: Does the relationship add ongoing conflict? (i.e., something to show and not just tell)
  • A Goal: Is a resolution for the relationship the character’s goal?
  • A Character Arc: Does the character’s changing attitudes about the relationship illustrate their growth arc?
  • A Backstory Wound: Is the relationship the cause of a backstory wound?
  • A False Belief: Is the relationship the cause of a false belief?
  • A Theme: Does the relationship illuminate the theme?
  • The Stakes: Does the relationship increase the stakes?
  • Their Motivation: Does the relationship create or change the character’s motivation?

Does Everything Need to Have a Point?

If a character is ranting just to rant, that’s less relevant to the story. Sure, that scene might reveal that the character doesn’t like their mother, but why does that matter if that tidbit isn’t related to the rest of the story?

The Elements of a Scene Checklist is meant to help us identify when a scene isn’t pulling its weight for the story. When we spend a lot of words on unimportant things, we drag the pacing of our story down.

Conversely, if a scene moves forward a reader’s understanding of the story—not just an understanding of the character but of the bigger story as well—the pace remains solid because there’s a feeling of forward momentum being driven by an all-encompassing purpose.

As readers, while we may want to understand a character, just as we’d want to get to know a new acquaintance, we’re more likely to turn pages if that understanding also contributes to a sense of the greater story.  In a real-world example, we could compare that sense of a bigger picture to wanting to know how well we can relate to a new acquaintance—could they become a friend?

When something feels meaningful—to the bigger picture of either our lives or a story—we’re more likely to pay attention. Scenes with a purpose will automatically feel stronger.

No, This Isn’t a Rule…

However, this is a writing guideline. (There are very few unbreakable rules in writing.) But just like any other guideline, we should know the reasons behind it before we decide to break it.

If we break this guideline to expound on a tangent that has no story purpose (and has just an author purpose of wanting to share the information), we’ll affect the pacing and tension of the story. Some readers might get bored and close the book. And some might find the character so fascinating that they’d read the character’s grocery shopping list.

But it is a risk. So we want to make a choice about breaking this guideline consciously, and not just because we’re lying to ourselves about whether or not a tangential rant, backstory information dump, dialogue back-and-forth, etc. has a point.

How Are Subplots Made Meaningful?

Similarly, our story’s subplots should have a purpose to the overall story. By definition, subplots are plots that support the main plot in some way. Short stories may or may not have subplots, but in longer stories, like novellas or novel-length, a story needs more.

Subplots are useful in longer stories because in addition to adding layers and shoring up a sagging middle, they can…:

  • show complications for the main conflict
  • reveal different aspects of the characters (the main plot might be their external goal while a subplot might be their internal goal)
  • provide an opportunity to increase the stakes or tension (the protagonist can fail on a subplot goal, which can make the main conflict feel more at risk)
  • change a character’s motivations for the main conflict
  • allow characters to learn skills and gain abilities for the main conflict, etc.

All of those examples tie into the main storyline, either through the plot (complications, skills, etc.) or through the character’s arc for the story (internal goals, motivations, etc.). Subplots along those lines work well because they don’t distract from the main story.

(Note that in some types of series (such as those that continue from book to book and/or contain an overall arc, such as Harry Potter), a subplot might not be resolved in the current story and be left as a thread for future books. These types of subplots, because they’re not resolved as part of main conflict, might not directly tie to the main storyline.)

Just like with the tangent issue, we should usually be able to see how subplots are related to the conflict, stakes, character arc, resolution of the character’s internal goals, wounds, beliefs, or other issues, etc. If we can remove a subplot and it wouldn’t change the main story, it usually doesn’t belong.

How Subplots Can Relate to the Main Storyline

Let’s take a few common subplots and give a couple of examples for how they might relate to the main story:

  • Love Interest: This style of subplot doesn’t have to mean romantic love. A subplot of a man bonding with a stray cat that culminates with him trying to find the animal before the Big Bad catches it provides the same type of “increasing the stakes” purpose that a romantic love interest could. Friends or family can help train protagonists, get them to admit their internal issues, or push them to take action.
  • Character Internal Arc: A character’s internal growth is often a subplot, as they shed the backstory wound or false belief holding them back. Or a subplot might help a character learn a vital lesson about what their goals should be (thus changing their motivations).
  • Additional Complications: A character might suffer from bad habits or addictions, or struggle with character traits that get in their way of making the best decisions for the main storyline. A woman who’s trying to save money for a goal might fall prey to her gambling addiction and lose her savings.
  • Face Their Fear: Characters might have a phobia or a fear that makes them vulnerable that they need to face on the way to meeting up with the antagonist at the Climax. A man who’s afraid of water might need to follow the villain onto a boat to keep him from getting away.
  • Longings and Needs: Related to a character’s internal arc, a character might have internal needs and longings that they’re not consciously aware of but are strong enough to drive motivations. A subplot might address a character’s desire for acceptance, love, validation, respect, security, etc., such as if a woman goes after her external goal because she wants her father’s approval.

With both tangents and subplots, the wrong focus could distract from the story we’re trying to tell. However, if we follow the guideline of ensuring that the tangent or subplot has a purpose related to the main storyline, readers will be more likely to stay engaged.

Readers who can see at least hints of how the subplots or tangents are related to the main storyline will be left with the impression of a stronger story. Subplots and tangents that have a point give readers a sense that a story is tightly plotted and that everything follows a story’s internal logic.

So, as long as a scene serves a story purpose, we can feel confident that it belongs as part of our story. And hopefully, with this benchmark, we’ll know whether a scene truly is adding layers of character development or is just going off on an unrelated tangent. *smile*

Have you ever struggled to know whether a tangent or subplot belongs? Do you usually try to make sure they have a purpose or are meaningful to the story? Do you think it’s possible to include unrelated tangents or subplots without sacrificing story tension or pacing? Do you tend to use some types of subplots more than others? Can you think of other ways we can make tangents or subplots relate to the main story?

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What do you think?

23 Comments on "Tangents and Subplots: When Do They Work?"

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Carradee

Connectivity seems to be an oft-overlooked foundation in writing: How does X connect to Y?

This applies to words, sentences, paragraphs, themes, dialogue, description, rants, character choices—everything. Parallelism and coherence are simply side effects of connectivity.

I believe that connectivity is also what makes the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t. The connection may be indirect, or it my be on the series or author level rather than the book level, but there will be some connection between X and Y.

That’s an admittedly abstract, nebulous, not-easily-applicable way of looking at things, though. 🙂

Tahlia Newland

I get it totally; not sure that all readers of my sometimes abstractly connected Prunella Smith books get the subtlety though. But hey, you can’t please everyone, right?

Carradee

But hey, you can’t please everyone, right?

Precisely! 🙂

amit kumar das
amit kumar das

Jami, you have delved into all the details , probabilities etc. In the ‘sub plots’ analysis you have noted down five important factors; you have pointed out love interests factors, longing and needs factors or face their fear etc. . But my point is how you will build your main character i.e. does he feel a real need for this relation with his mother or how much mother’s acceptance to which is visible or how much father’s approval is really needed by mother in such cases . All these issues depend upon the situation and yes in this case the sub plots may hold a key to the main plots.

Glynis Jolly

Can a subplot be separate from the main plot? I know that if I was reading a story where they didn’t intermingle, I’d be wondering why one or the other is even in the story at all. My subplot weaves in and around my main plot, almost giving the story another angle for the reader to see.

Davonne Burns
Subplots can be so much fun! I love weaving them into my main plot in ways the reader might not expect. I also love using them to highlight the theme of the main plot. I have one fanfic where I’m testing out having a main plot and 5 separate subplots one of which is a romance arc that’s been building for ~200K words. I don’t know if it will work (or if I’m just a glutton for complex plots and the related headaches) but so far it’s a lot of fun. I have a bulletin board with index cards lining out the important scenes for each subplot. Every single subplot ties back to the main plot, something I’m rather proud of but was a TON of work, not going to lie about that. I find Aeon Timeline very useful for lining up plots points and character arcs (doesn’t hurt that you can export to Scrivener either). I find that having the visual representation of what is happening when and who is involved a great help in making sure everything ties together. Which is where your work sheets come in handy too. I actually printed off several last week since I’m starting on the really nit picky edits of my current WIP. I love to color code things, so I went through and selected a color for each of the Essential Elements and started going through each scene to make sure I had them. It’s been very helpful to figure out… Read more »
Tahlia Newland

I took a huge risk with my last book Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds, because it has literally worlds within worlds. It’s several different threads to Ella’s life, her actual life where she’s being stalked, her online life, her dreams, her memories, a past life and even the life of a character in a story she’s editing. I tried to make everything add to the central story line, by deepening the experiences she had in reality and reflecting them in a different ‘world’. It’s metaphysical concept and literary in style, but I don’t think that’s an excuse not to have a tight plot. Anyway, I’m guessing it works because I got some very savvy and tough reviewers to review it and they gave it 5 stars. Now I’m working on a sequel with the same multi-layered reality and facing the same issue – they should all deepen the central thread and themes and somehow contribute to the conclusion of the main story. The first two of those I have, it’s the last one that’s tricky. Weaving them is fine, knotting them together at the end is the challenge.

Becky Fettig

Great advice. I took your Elements of a Scene Checklist to make sure one of my subplot scenes was needed. I had a faint tickle in the back of mind that it did not serve much of a purpose, except showcase my protag’s awesome castle house, and sure enough, the subplot scene was not needed. (Oh but I loved it).

Thanks for sharing the above article about subplots and what we should be looking for in every scene within our chapters. Makes for a better story and reading experience.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
I like this elements of a scene checklist, especially as it marks the essential, important, and bonus elements. You know, honestly, I sometimes wish that my story was a much simpler story. I mean, why on earth does it have to have an epic length backstory dump (3-4 chapters long), multiple subplots, a huge cast of “main” and secondary characters, AND a novel the hero and heroine read and discuss, AND a novel that my character is writing??? The novel my character Yang Mingshan is writing gives me the biggest headache, haha. So on the one hand, I’m very happy that this is a very unconventional story, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story, definitely not in the martial arts genre, where you see a story character write their own story within your story. An action-adventure romantic comedy within an action-adventure romantic comedy…Yes, both the inner and outer story are in the same genre…Okay maybe it would be even more confusing if they were in different genres, lol. Yet on the other hand, it kind of gives me a headache because it makes my already very long story even longer!! I’m not removing it, though, due to many reasons I will list later on. What also gives me a headache, is that with Yang Mingshan’s novel going on at the same time as my main novel, I need to alternate between these inner and outer stories. At first, it wasn’t that bad, as each dip into Yang Mingshan’s… Read more »
Jon
Jon

The sad thing is that I too like HEA’s in almost any type of fiction. I want the mystery solved, the suspense lifted, the girl saved and the submissive sated. To relieve the ennui, failure with consequences is very useful. It gets me thinking that perhaps this will be the book that ends with the heroine married … and paralyzed from the waist down. Or weighing 40 extra pounds. Or the hero ends the book with one less child than he started with (but the other children are saved from the cult).

I wish every author I read would read your blog. Jon

Jon
Jon

PS I forgot to mention that the cover of Pure Sacrifice, which you wrote you had to work hard to find, is in the British phrase spot on. I kept looking back at the cover as I read. It is essential to how he fit into several ethnic worlds.

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