Tangents and Subplots: When Do They Work?

by Jami Gold on August 25, 2015

in Writing Stuff

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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23 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee August 25, 2015 at 9:35 am

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. 🙂

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Jami Gold August 25, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Hi Carradee,

Fantastic insight! Yes, whether we’re talking about cause and effect in general, sentence level motivation-reaction units, or big-picture story flow, we’re talking about connections.

Just like my post on the difference between episodic stories versus a cause-and-effect chain story, unrelated elements don’t contribute to the tension or pacing of the story. A rant that is triggered by an event and ends in an epiphany or even just a new mood after getting that angst off their chest is connected and part of the story flow.

The point is creating that sense of connection–which often elicits that sense of purpose or a bigger picture. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Tahlia Newland August 25, 2015 at 9:58 pm

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?

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Carradee August 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

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

Precisely! 🙂

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amit kumar das August 25, 2015 at 11:35 am

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.

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Jami Gold August 25, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Hi Amit,

Yes, those details would be different in each story. And you’re right that the exploration of that meaning to the character can grow from a simple tangent into a whole subplot.

That’s why I wanted to cover both issues in this post, as they’re often related, and if we understand one, we might better understand the other. (Not to mention that a tangent that might seem unrelated could, in fact, belong as part of a bigger subplot.) 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Glynis Jolly August 25, 2015 at 4:16 pm

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.

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Jami Gold August 25, 2015 at 10:40 pm

Hi Glynis,

Yay! I’m glad you saw this post. I know you’d asked about subplots long ago, and your question was one of the reasons I wanted to do this post. I was going to message you and give you a heads up, but I hadn’t gotten that far yet. LOL!

One thing to keep in mind is that some terminology in writing can get thrown around a bit willy-nilly. For example, “plot” is sometimes used to describe the story itself, and sometimes it’s used to refer just to the tangible events that happen in a story (car accident, kidnapping, argument, etc.) or to the string of events.

For the second, more precise, definition, yes, a subplot could be separate from the main plot events because it could tie into the internal character arc (such as showing a character overcoming their false belief) or those other bullet points mentioned above and not the physical events (although even in that case, a physical event from the plot might trigger the exploration of the subplot). However, if we have the broader definition of “plot” in mind, then no, a subplot wouldn’t usually be separate.

As you said, they should intermingle. A subplot should usually feel like it’s part of the same story, and when that’s the case, a subplot would provide another perspective or angle for the big-picture story.

Also, as you alluded to with the word “weaved,” our subplots are likely to play out in bits and pieces over the course of the story. We might have a scene focused on the main plot, then a scene focused on the subplot, and then a scene touching on both, etc.

We usually wouldn’t want to stop all momentum on the main plot and set that aside while we do a bunch of subplot scenes in a row. Stories like that can work, but we’d probably want to mix in a sentence here or there referencing the bigger conflict so that tension isn’t lost.

Let me know if I didn’t quite answer your original question or if you have additional questions! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns August 25, 2015 at 4:45 pm

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 what elements scenes are missing .

Basically when it comes to subplots and tangents I like to look to my secondary characters motivations and goals. Anywhere their motivations or goals conflict with or hinder the protagonist is a potential subplot or tangent, even if it’s just for a chapter or two.

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Jami Gold August 25, 2015 at 10:42 pm

Hi Davonne,

Oh! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and recommendation for the software! 🙂

And I love the insight about looking for where other characters might conflict with or hinder our protagonist(s). That’s a great idea. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Tahlia Newland August 25, 2015 at 9:54 pm

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.

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Jami Gold August 25, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Wow, that sounds amazing! Congratulations on getting all those elements to play together nicely. 🙂

When we see a super-complicated story like that manage to connect the dots, the rest of us mere mortals have no excuse. LOL! Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Becky Fettig August 26, 2015 at 8:56 am

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.

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Jami Gold August 26, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Hi Becky,

I know the feeling! I’d recommend saving that scene for a bonus feature on your website. 🙂 (In other words, we don’t have to say goodbye to something we really love. LOL!

I hope that helps lessen the sting a bit. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 26, 2015 at 11:54 am

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 novel was relatively short, just 1-2 chapters or even less, and then you’d see Yang Mingshan and his friends discussing his story after each update. (Almost like a writer’s critique group!!) Also, the vast majority of the time, my novels showcased my outer story, and Yang Mingshan’s story only peeked in occasionally. The reason why Yang Mingshan’s story could appear only briefly and occasionally here, was that I could do LOTS of summaries rather than writing out whole scenes from Mingshan’s novel.

However, now I pretty much write out Yang Mingshan’s story in full. (I must remember to get permission from him, or else he’d accuse me of plagiarism or pirating, even though he himself is in my novel series…) I write his story in full because it has now become a really interesting and absorbing story in its own right, not just a casual fun thing that Yang Mingshan dabbles in. And since I write out Yang Mingshan’s story in full, and that he is a writer who writes daily, approximately 3 pages a day, I now have to write many consecutive chapters of Yang Mingshan’s story to match the pace of the outer story.

So for instance, after writing my outer story where 3 months has passed, I have to go back to Mingshan’s story and show what he wrote these past 3 months. There are shorter periods of time, like writing my outer story where 1 week has passed, and then I go back to Mingshan’s story and see where his story is at after 1 week of writing. There are also times where after we see some stuff happen in my outer story, we switch scenes back to Mingshan and we see how his WIP is doing, lol.

And so I have this dilemma: If I somehow alternate between the outer and inner story more frequently, I won’t make the readers feel lost in Mingshan’s story for too long, yet Mingshan’s story will feel more “choppy.” As a reader, I would be annoyed that Mingshan’s story keeps getting interrupted when I want to find out what happens next in his story.

Conversely, if I alternate between the outer and inner stories less frequently, i.e. the inner story could take over 100 pages or even 300 pages before we get to return to the outer story, we have new problems. The reader wouldn’t get interrupted so often, so they get to follow Mingshan’s plot for a longer and more satisfying time. However, the reader may also feel kind of weird if after e.g. 250 pages, we still don’t get to go back to the outer story!

Can you see why I have such a headache? Haha. And I still haven’t even started editing. I’m just thinking about it.

I really have yet to read a story about a character writing a story, where the character’s work actually appears in full and takes up a significant amount of space in the main story. However, I have read some stories that alternate between two separate realities or worlds, and I see the same dilemma as what I mentioned above. I don’t quite remember much of my reading experience with these kinds of stories, but I do recall experiencing both types of problems:

When the “inner/ other story” carries on for a very long time, I wonder impatiently or anxiously when we’ll ever get back to the main story. But when the “inner/other story” alternates with the “main/outer story” very frequently, e.g. chapter 1 = main story, chapter 2 = the other story, chapter 3 = main story again, and so on, I can also get frustrated when the “other/inner story” gets really interesting and then it’s cut short and we switch back to the main story that I have suddenly lost interest in, lol.

Usually I would say the “outer/main” story might be the more interesting one, since it’s the “main and proper” story; yet sometimes the “inner/ other story” may become very intriguing too or become even more intriguing than the “main and proper” story. So the reader (or at least I) would be annoyed if the writer was so disciplined as to switch back to the main story when I want to see what happens next in that “inner/ other story.”

Lol yeah this is a pretty difficult situation. The only solution I thought of so far, is to simply use my intuition to feel when switching would feel best, and to feel how long the inner/other story should last.

Okay, enough of my “when should I switch between the two stories” issue, lol. If we see the long and short sections of Mingshan’s stories as “tangents” or “subplots,” these are my arguments for keeping Mingshan’s story in, haha, aside from how it’s unconventional, fun, and cool in my opinion:

1) As mentioned above, this “inner” story reveals LOTS about Yang Mingshan as a person that the main story doesn’t show. It most notably reveals what he thinks an ideal romantic partner should be, what his ideal self may be, and that he has quite unconventional attitudes towards gender roles (i.e. he’s very happy with gender role reversals, and even encourages these reversals, lol.) Even aside from these revelations, being a novelist is a core part of who Mingshan is as a person. So talking at length about what he’s writing really makes you feel what drives him, what he loves, what he’s passionate about, etc.

2) Mingshan’s story actually is an interesting parallel to my main story. Many events and situations are very similar, though there are many differences too. But the cool thing is that Mingshan’s story and my story are not direct parallels. Like they are similar and echo each other in some ways, but in others they deviate. That way, it doesn’t sound like a blow by blow, complete copying of stories, nor does it sound like a boring “Mingshan’s story completely reflects his own real life” kind of thing. Also, it makes both stories more unpredictable, because those similarities between his and my stories may mislead us to think that the same things will happen, yet actually different things happen. So that’s sort of a fun red herring? Lol. It’s like how David Copperfield reflects some parts of Charles Dickens’s life, but it is not his autobiography per se. Actually Mingshan’s story is even more dissimilar to my story than David Copperfield is to Dickens’s real life, haha.

This partial parallelism of Mingshan’s and my stories is really fun and I think it is quite cool, especially as I’ve never done this kind of thing before. The parallelism makes the two stories “foreshadow” one another in things that may or may not happen. It’s also interesting for the reader to compare the specific parallels. (At least, I would find this interesting if I was the reader.) For example, the main girl in Mingshan’s story is similar to my heroine in my main story in some ways, but the two girls are very different in many other ways. The main boy in Mingshan’s story is also similar to my hero in my story in some aspects, but they are very different people in other aspects.

3) This might sound weird, but I really like this creepy-ish feeling that Mingshan’s story “forecasts” that a certain thing might happen in my main story. This thing may indeed happen, but it may also be a false foreboding, lol. Or, Mingshan’s story might forecast that this happy thing will happen, but in my main story, this happy thing doesn’t happen and this sad thing happens instead. It does actually sound kind of creepy. If I were to read a story someone is writing about me (or I am writing about myself), with very similar events but with many differences, then I fear that the bad events in this story will happen to me in this world too, and I would hope that the happy events in that story will happen to me as well and be sad if they don’t. Yikes, it’s enough to drive one mad, isn’t it? XD

4) This parallelism does highlight some common themes in my main story more.

5) Mingshan’s writing of his story actually drives forward an important plotline: Mingshan’s own romance plot. Specifically, Mingshan’s love with a girl called Tian Wenjia happens mostly thanks to his writing this story. It’s through Mingshan’s discussions with Tian Wenjia that we see how their relationship becomes deeper, more intellectual, emotional, and meaningful. Tian Wenjia is already heads-over-heels in love with Mingshan very soon after meeting him, as she is very charmed by both his looks and his personality, but Mingshan’s feelings for her take much more time to develop. Mingshan was already in unrequited love with the heroine of my story at the time, so he needed time to get over the heroine and fall in love with Tian Wenjia.

Without the story he’s writing, Mingshan might still fall for Tian Wenjia, but his relationship and connection with her wouldn’t be as deep. Without his story, it would probably just be a plain “Oh you’re so pretty and you have such an awesome personality,” which is not bad in itself. But I personally prefer something even deeper than that, i.e. a profound connection through a main common interest. This connection can be intellectual, artistic, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. Discussing the story with Tian Wenjia creates a great intellectual and artistic, and sometimes emotional, psychological, and spiritual bonding between them. Yes, I know some people think I have much too high expectations for relationships, lol, but as a romance reader, I really believe in the importance of having one or a few big common interests and “being together” through these big interests.

6) His story also reveals the personalities and quirks of some other characters who read his story, especially his main readers: Tian Wenjia his lover, his younger sister Yang Ningshui, and the hero of my story Yuan Dingshun. Their different reactions towards his story, and what they suggest he do in the edits (Yuan Dingshun didn’t suggest anything yet, though), show a lot about these characters as people. So ha, I’m really not as anti-showing as I sometimes seem to be. 😉

7) Mingshan’s story certainly influences the story tone or mood, in maintaining this romantic comedy, lighthearted overall feel, punctuated by more tense and “dangerous” moments. Um, not sure if this counts as “story tone or mood.” Do please correct me if I’m wrong, haha.

After this lengthy analysis, I can at least say that these long consecutive chapters of Mingshan’s story have:

-a plot point (Mingshan’s romance with Tian Wenjia starting)

-action to advance plot (Mingshan’s romance with Tian Wenjia developing and deepening. Also Mingshan’s friendship with the hero deepening. You mentioned friendship plots above, and I don’t know if the boys’ friendship is relevant to the main plot, but I will see.)

-a character’s goal: sort of. Mingshan’s goal is to write this story as his friends commissioned him to. He also subconsciously uses this story to bond more deeply with his friends, his sister, and his would-be and now lover Tian Wenjia. Erm, so those would be his subconscious goals to deepen his friendships and romantic relationship? Maybe this would be like a longing/ need fulfillment thing. Uh…I don’t know how exactly Mingshan will be involved in the climax scenes, though he would probably help fight the villains and save his friends, but hopefully these sort of “love interest” subplots will become relevant to the main plot later.

—-character development definitely. Though again, as my story is not finished and I’m a pantser, I don’t know for sure whether revelations of Mingshan and his readers’ personalities and quirks will be relevant to the main plot.

—-I…honestly don’t think I see anything related to tension, conflict, or stakes here with Mingshan’s story, at least not yet. (There’s tons of tension, conflict, and stakes WITHIN the inner story, but perhaps not in the outer story.)

—–character motivation may be in this. Related to the character development point above, perhaps seeing Mingshan’s loves and dislikes of certain things and people in his story, will hint to us what personal motivations, desires, and goals he has, and these in turn may affect what he does in the climax? Who knows.

—–foreshadowing definitely happens here, even if they are sometimes false premonitions, lol

—-character backstory sometimes, but infrequently, happens, though these may or may not be linked to main plots.

—-as aforementioned, Mingshan’s stories do reinforce the importance of many of my story themes.

It looks like I do have at least three scene elements, yay! Unless I misunderstood anything. But as one of your friends mentioned, I can’t really judge until I actually finish the story and can see the big picture! But even if I don’t have enough scene elements, I would still keep Mingshan’s story in because of that long list of reasons before my “scene elements analysis.”

Oh but I did think of one question, though: Tell me if I misunderstood, but in one of the Facebook comments, you mentioned that subplots don’t need to further the plot? Yet, the list of common subplot types above all tie into the main plot somehow…And later, you do say that the subplots and tangents should all relate to the main storyline, which I assume is the same as the main plotline?

Don’t get me wrong, as I like it when everything relates to the main plot too, haha, but can there be instances where something is not *really* related to the main plot, yet it’s still acceptable or even enjoyable to read? E.g. In some stories, there are some backstories or scenes revealing more of a main character’s personality, yet these new things I learn about this character are not related to the main plot. But I still enjoyed reading these character development backstories and scenes, because they made me like, understand, and “emotionally connect” with this main character more. I.e. these backstories and scenes made me care more about this character.

Developing a character in things unrelated to the main plot is good for me as a reader, because I’ve read many stories where I felt so-so about the main character because of a lack of character development unrelated to the main events. Genuinely liking and caring about the main character, or at least being intrigued by them, is important to me, though it’s not absolutely required. Of course, it’s ideal if we could do character development that also ties into the main story at the same time. I just feel that some stories are too main story-focused, that I feel like I don’t really know the protagonist much as a “person”, as opposed to just a “hero.”

Another example would be a tangent about some interesting habits or beliefs of people in this fictional society, but these habits have nothing to do with the main plotline. They are simply intriguing to read about, and they enhance your sense that there’s a full, complex world that exists outside of the main plot.

I’m sorry that this is such a long comment once again, haha. Didn’t expect the stuff about Mingshan’s story to take up so much space. =_=

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Jami Gold August 26, 2015 at 6:12 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Somehow I knew you’d be full of questions. 😉

Hmm, I think only you and the pacing of your story could answer for the “best” way to mix and match the stories. Going for multiple chapters of the inner story would definitely leave the outer story adrift, and that puts you into the position of sort of “playing favorites” between them.

I’m thinking the main reason it would make sense to keep these two stories integrated would be if each and every interruption in the inner story (at the very least until it gets going and takes on its own irresistible momentum) ended with some insight or epiphany for the readers or the characters into what’s going on in the outer story. For example, if your author character realized through writing such-and-such chapter that he was being similarly stubborn or rude or whatever to his friends as his characters were being.

Or another reason might be if the stories come together at the end. Readers might get frustrated along the way, but if they stick with it, they might get to the end and say “Oh! That’s why we were switching back and forth.” (And if you’re familiar with Dan Brown’s writing (The Da Vinci Code), he switches back and forth between multiple threads, which can frustrate readers, but he also leaves off each one on a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked.)

If neither of those are the case, the format might feel disjointed no matter what you do.

I’m going to suggest something radical. Ready? 🙂 (And feel free to ignore, but I wanted to make sure you’d considered all your options.)

You could separate the stories. Seriously. I’ve seen this done at least once where an author released a story that one of their characters “wrote.”

If I recall correctly, they released the character’s story either on their website as bonus content or on Amazon or Smashwords with a title like “Title: Character’s Novel within the X Series.” They might have priced it at $0.99 or free or something.

If you decided to try it but were concerned about the places where the stories did overlap, you could have each of those places in the outer story reference the proper section in the inner. For example, after cutting out chapter 3 of the inner story, the outer story could start with a transition of something like, “After staying up late to finish chapter 3 of his story…” In other words, he could still talk about his book, and it would just be separating out his actual story.

That way, readers would have a choice about how to read the stories. They could read them separately, or they could pause in their read and switch over to the other one to catch up. I could see some readers wanting to read multiple times to get the different experiences. 🙂

To answer your other question, plotline and storyline don’t necessarily mean the same thing. (Technically, they don’t mean the same thing at all, but many people use them in overlapping ways.) The plot is WHAT HAPPENS–the events themselves. A story is more about meaning, so a storyline is about conveying what the plot events and the character growth or change MEAN.

Think about what the lesson or take-away message is. That might help find the meaning inherent throughout the story. (This is why agents often complain about a query being to plotty. It’s too much about the what and not enough about the why it matters.)

So subplots don’t have to move the plot events along (meaning, they don’t have to make the next event happen), but they do have to add meaning to the overall story, such as tying into the character’s growth arc. Like in the examples I gave above, a subplot might not trigger a showdown with an antagonist (an event), but it might teach a lesson to the protagonist about their priorities (an emotional arc that adds meaning to the story and the events). Indirectly, such a subplot might effect events down the road, as the character makes different decisions which set different events in motion, but it’s not directly affecting the plot events.

For example, in Treasured Claim (since I know you’ve read it 🙂 ), Alex’s struggle to accept his mom’s actions is a subplot. It’s all about character development and internal conflict, and it doesn’t affect the main plot directly in any way. However, it illustrates his internal conflict on his bigger internal-arc subplot, which is about him accepting himself. Indirectly, the resolution he gains in his complicated feelings toward her help him further along his internal goal (which is more of an unconscious longing than anything conscious). And his progress along that bigger internal arc indirectly affects the plot as he makes different decisions, which leads to different events than would have happened otherwise.

So by no means is this need to have subplots tie into the story meant to say that only plot-focused subplots work. Subplots can absolutely be character focused too. I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 29, 2015 at 11:01 am

Thanks, Jami, for your detailed answers! Yeah, tangents and subplots are probably some of my main struggles in my WIP, lol!

Oh, I like how you put it. Plot meaning what happens, and story meaning the meaning. (Sorry I should have phrased that differently, lol.)

😀 Yay thanks for using Treasured Claim as an example. I liked that part about Alex’s changing feelings towards his mother too. Examples always make abstract concepts a lot clearer.

Hmm well I have some minor subplots where a character starts off being rather antisocial towards either everyone or just towards the opposite gender, lol, but this character learns to be more open to friendships or at least to be more pleasant towards others. There’s another character who was once a very conceited and arrogant rich girl, but she has now learned to be modest, and be appreciative and respectful towards others.

For both types of arcs, the antisocial to more affable and the arrogant to more modest, the characters would obviously be able to make more friends, which could conceivably and probably make a difference in at least some of the plot events.

In fact, the arrogant rich girl’s transformation VERY CLEARLY changes the possible plot events. She is actually Tian Wenjia, and if she did not learn to be modest and appreciative and respectful towards others, she would not be able to appreciate or respect Yang Mingshan fully, and that could make an unbalanced relationship. :/ I hate relationships where one partner respects the other significantly less than their partner respects them.

And if Tian Wenjia were still such an arrogant person, Yang Mingshan would probably never even like her, let alone fall in love with her, lol. Tian Wenjia wouldn’t be able to become good friends with Yang Ningshui, who is Yang Mingshan’s younger sister, either. Ningshui is very close to her brother, and Tian Wenjia’s relationship would most likely go more smoothly and happily if her prospective sister-in-law likes her too.

Plus, if Tian Wenjia didn’t respect or appreciate Yang Mingshan her partner as a person, not only would Yang Mingshan be unhappy. Tian Wenjia herself would be very unhappy and dissatisfied with her relationship.
Sorry, I enjoy talking about relationships and romance way too much, haha! But yeah that is a pretty clear example of a character arc (her personality/attitude change) eventually affecting a significant plot event, which is her becoming lovers and later marrying (yay!) Yang Mingshan.

And maybe my characters would think I’m creepy, but I already know who their future daughter will be and I have actually even written about her in the sequel (though I will rewrite this sequel), lol! So they HAVE to get together or else their lovely daughter that I so look forward to writing about won’t even be born. 🙁

Seriously, their daughter is probably my favorite or second favorite female character in the sequel series, haha, not including current characters in this story who will also appear in the sequel. So yeah she has to be born!!! Do you see how my characters would find me creepy? XDD

Ahem. Btw, would it be valid to say that a story may have more than one “main plotline?” My story is an action-adventure romantic comedy, so it has a “defeat the main villains in the end” plot, but also the “hero and heroine get together and marry” plot. And as we’ve discussed before, my story is kind of an epic, so secondary (but not minor) characters and their romance arcs would each be considered “main plots” too, right? Or do only the hero and heroine’s, “the main couples’ ,” or “the couples with the most screen time’s” romance arcs count as main plotlines?

As for Yang Mingshan’s story, lol that is radical! XD Well, I can see that the radical approach would help me cut down several hundred pages in my process of trying to shorten my story as much as possible. Yet I feel that the method of integrating the two stories would be more suitable for my story.

Firstly, I have too many reasons for why I want to include Mingshan’s story in mine, especially in thematic and plot parallels with my main story, character development and revelation of Mingshan and some of his readers, and also in showing how Mingshan and Tian Wenjia’s romance came about. I don’t think simply referencing the story or mentioning little bits of it would show these things as clearly or powerfully. 🙁 The Tian Wenjia and Yang Mingshan romance would be less romantic to me too, haha.

Two, though some readers would be happy to read Mingshan’s story, I know that many, if not most, readers will not bother to do that, lol. If they don’t read his story, the experience of my story would be very different and certainly much less rich.

Three, Chinese is unfortunately not my first language, yet it is Mingshan’s first language. Mingshan is supposedly a great or pretty good writer, and his friends have praised his skill in using language well. So in my story, to make up for the gap between my and Mingshan’s Chinese writing abilities, I don’t put his story in italics or anything. So hopefully readers will get the hint that this is just my approximate rendering of Mingshan’s story, not his story proper.

Actually, do you think I can assume that the readers will interpret it that way, though? Or do you think I should specify somewhere, maybe in a footnote or in brackets that this is my reproduction of his story, not his actual writing? I do think that brackets and footnotes look clumsy and intrusive, especially if there is only one in the entire story! Yet if it is not clear to the reader, then they may actually think it is Mingshan’s own writing!! So maybe I really should make a note here for the readers?

Anyhow, yeah due to these three reasons, I wouldn’t be able to separate the two stories, much as it would be a cool idea!

As for the integration method, thankfully I do have SOME integrations done already, though I really should do even more. The most memorable integration is when Yang Mingshan suddenly feels that Tian Wenjia, whom he is not in love with yet, resembles the heroine in his story Tang Miansu in personality, which makes him like Tian Wenjia as a person even more than he already did. (I have many “Oh my gosh, he reminds me of my character!” moments in my real life, so Mingshan would understandably have them too, lol.) This resemblance to his beloved heroine (and favorite character) can be seen as one reason why Mingshan falls in love with Tian Wenjia later.

Another integration was when Mingshan was writing the unrequited love romance between Feng Qilian and Wei Lifang, before the Tang Miansu and Zhan Lanhua romance began. (The latter couple took over the story, lol. Not sure if you remember Mingshan’s astonishing changing of protagonists just because he didn’t like the ex-protagonist and liked this originally secondary character much better.)

When Mingshan was writing this unrequited love romance, he was still in unrequited love with the heroine, though he was trying hard to suppress his feelings because he knows it’s wrong to “poach” a girl who’s already romantically involved with another guy. Mingshan himself thought about this disturbing (to him) similarity between his and his character’s situation, and he was really scared that the hero of my main story, who is an avid fan of Mingshan’s story, would find out that Mingshan had a crush on the heroine (the hero’s romantic partner). Yes, Mingshan doesn’t even tell the hero and heroine. He only ever told a trusted long-time friend and Tian Wenjia, not anyone else.

INTERESTINGLY, Mingshan’s switch from Feng Qilian’s unrequited love story, to Tang Miansu’s happy totally requited love story, occurred approximately during the time where he finally got over the heroine. I don’t remember when exactly he fell in love with Tian Wenjia, though. But this change matching Mingshan’s reality is “uncanny” 😉 And maybe I should mention this particular link between his real life and his story somewhere. Maybe Tian Wenjia would pick up on it, haha.
Yang Mingshan also mentioned after Tian Wenjia confessed her feelings to him, that he is not as bold as the hero Zhan Lanhua in the story. I.e. Yang Mingshan is indirectly asking Tian Wenjia to make the first move, lol! Because he’s too shy to initiate anything! She simply grabs his two hands in an affectionate, loverly clasp, lol.

Oh a minor integration point, was when one of Mingshan’s readers actually LIKES Feng Qilian whom Mingshan dislikes. Mingshan dislikes Feng Qilian because Qilian is “so emo and angsty.” But this reader likes Qilian BECAUSE he’s so melancholy and emotional, lol, as this reader has a similar personality so he can relate well to Qilian.

The thought of his similarity in personality with Qilian, leads this reader to think bitterly and sorrowfully that this female friend and working partner of his has such a different personality. He knows that she’s someone who hides her emotions and looks cold, because she’s uncomfortable with expressing her feelings (unless it’s anger or joy, lol. Though the latter would be expressed in a more subdued way).

It’s fun that he links his personality similarity to Yang Mingshan’s story protagonist, to his sort of relationship and communication problem with this female friend. Whether the two communicate perfectly or not, I think they will still be able to help the hero and heroine to beat the main villains.

Yet their relationship MIGHT affect their working relationship in helping the hero and heroine, and their emotional relationship would be at least an important subplot in itself. The latter is because it’s sort of a romance plot: The female friend used to have a crush on him, and I think she really is over it now, but he never returns her romantic love; he has only brotherly love and friendship for her.

As for other things: Ooh I like the idea of cliffhangers. I used to always do cliffhangers at the end of every scene if the next scene is about different characters, but nowadays I prefer to end on a “momentous note,” lol. That way, readers aren’t too frustrated that they will have to wait who knows how many chapters to see what happens (like in George R.R.Martin’s books), but at the same time, the momentous note feels satisfying AND creates tension: the sense of foreboding or anticipation that you told me about before.

Ah, I like the point that integrations become less necessary when the inner story takes on its own irresistible momentum. There were more integrations at the beginning of Mingshan’s story, and later on when the inner story lasted longer and became more intriguing (in my opinion), the integration was done less. Nevertheless, I think this integration/ linking between the inner and outer stories as you suggested would make my story more enjoyable in general!

Oh wait back to the topic of making a story meaningful (the main storyline), you mentioned how subplots could contribute to a character arc rather than to main plot events directly. But what about subplots that contribute to themes in the story? Since themes would be another type of “meaning”? So a subplot that is not about a character changing, but about things that happen to the characters or that the characters do, that substantiates some important theme? It doesn’t need to be something dry and educational-looking, lol. It could be a very interesting or entertaining story in itself, still featuring main characters and probably the protagonists, but that shows a central theme in the story?

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Jami Gold December 5, 2015 at 10:02 pm

Hi Serena,

I think in an epic, there can be multiple main plotlines. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve heard, G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones would be an example of this.

Maybe a few searches on writing epics would give you a better feel for what is or isn’t typical in that category. I could definitely see how including your inner story would be more acceptable in an epic than in a non-epic. 🙂

To answer your other question, I wouldn’t assume that readers would understand the lack of italics to mean that you’re just approximately the inner story (especially since we’ve talked about how the use of italics is rare in Chinese stories), so a note would probably be best. Maybe you could do an Author Note at the beginning or end of the story?

And yes, I think subplots can tie in to themes quite well. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jon August 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm

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

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Jami Gold August 26, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Hi Jon,

Romance gets picked on a lot as being formulaic for having a happy ending, but as you point out, all genres have their definition of having a happy ending. And I’m with you–I want the happy ending. 🙂

In some ways, the endings of my stories feel very “and they all lived happily ever after” fairy-tale-ish. LOL! But there’s also at least one thing that shows that all is not perfect. So I try… 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Jon August 26, 2015 at 3:39 pm

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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Jami Gold August 26, 2015 at 6:20 pm

Hi Jon,

Thank you! I’m glad that all that work resulted in something that resonated with you. 🙂

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