(That’s my son, Elliot, who inspired a subplot in Beyond Lucky, reading the ARC in NYC.)
Let’s start with secondary characters. Do you know who they are? Do you know what they want?????
Make a list of the most important secondary characters.
Remember: important secondary characters are family members or friends. Co workers. You shouldn’t have to explain why they belong in the book.
Start by giving each of them each an alias. Another word for that? a main occupation. What are their main occupations that will be challenged in the heart of the story? What do they stand for? What is important to them?
What occupations will be at the center of their conflict?
If you don’t know or they don’t matter to the outcome of the plot: delete them. (more about deleting later)
Getting to know secondary characters:
There are lots of tricks to getting to know your characters. You can interview them. You can simply put them in a scene. You can let them write you letters. You can write a pivotal scene from their POV.
Start by talking. One of the greatest gifts that SCBWI and VCFA gave me were writer friends who like talking about the craft. Writers, I cannot recommend talking enough.
CLUSTER. (See yesterday for my cluster exercise of Parker.)
I ask WHO ARE YOU over and over again. (like 25 times) When I know who I am in who they are….does that make sense??….I know I’ve hit gold.
Interview them. Find their backstory.
How did each character get to the place where we meet them in the book? Is there something significant in their backstory that the reader should know?
Most important: At the beginning of the book: What do they want?? Why?
Do their desires CHANGE during the book? Do they change?
In the beginning, when I’m mapping them out, I might be wrong. Sometimes characters don’t reveal themselves until they are put in scenes.
NO WORRIES! Remember: there is NO success without failure! Tell yourself over and over again: THIS IS A DRAFT!!!! Trying out an answer that turns out to be wrong always leads me to the right answer.
Here are some rules. (I love rules.)
Rule one: Don’t worry about making them too memorable!!!
Rule two: Let them be extreme. Keep going back to their wants. Put your characters in opposition—and I don’t mean that they always have to want the opposite of each other. Make their wants RUB. Make their desires URGENT. Make the connections LOGICAL
EXERCISE: Name two character. Ask what do they want? Write down five times or places where these wants might come in conflict with each other.
In other words, ESTABLISH CONNECTIVITY—their connection to the main character and other characters in the book.
Connectivity can guide you. When we know how people are connected, how they are important to each other, when we see the affect they have on each other, we can begin to see the profluence—the order of the scenes, the forward motion of the story. We see LOGICALLY what should happen next. (In other words, we don’t have to manufacture it.)
Now, do the connectivity exercise.
In this exercise, I write down all the characters’ names and draw straight lines between them if they are connected….and squiggly lines for conflict. Look at characters that don’t have a lot of lines. And look at characters with lines…but no scenes.
Once you understand the emotional, internal connectivity between your characters, look at the places and events that link them.
***You can see my connectivity chart on Uma Krishnaswami’s blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.
In THE FIRE IN FICTION, Donald Maass writes that sagging, skippable middles are the result of writing that has not found its purpose. “Authors, as they plow through the middle portion of their mss, tend to write what they think ought to come next; furthermore, they write it in the first way it occurs to them to do so. In successive drafts, such scenes tend to stay in place, little altered.”
In my reading, these scenes often emerge when the writer sticks with TIME as the only vehicle of profluence. A lot of times, we stretch time with subplots that do not totally work.
So, today, let’s start taking a fresh approach to these scenes.
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass suggests a great way of organizing subplots to increase tension and meaning and even create some extra anticipation and foreshadowing.
His idea: create a table to intersect these three plot components:
Important turning points/events.
Make a column for each and see where we have connections.
Compare to your connectivity chart. Are there meaningful characters who are not in any scenes? Are there events or settings that are only important to one character???? Are there desires that need to be met before or after these big events? Think about what these big events do for your story!
How this worked for me: For example, in Beyond Lucky, the soccer field was a very important setting. The games provided a structure for the main plot and some subplots. But the other important settings: Ari’s mom’s car and his house set up big moments for some of the subplots. In all three settings, important things happen. When you return to a setting, the concrete details that make that setting important add meaning and tension to the scene. Different feelings can also be invoked from one place. Ari’s house is the scene of good family talks. It is also a place where Ari feels most unsure. On the field, he experiences triumph, loss, frustration and triumph again. Each of these turning points become complications that enrich the scenes. THey allowed me to develop the characters IN SCENES/WITH DETAILS over the course of the story.
If a scene is not working……or if you are finding potential turning points in summary form…..or if the turning points are falling flat/not emotional/no change occurring,
What do you do????
Story board. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of this scene? Is this subplot important? Are there spots that should be hot….but are not?
You can story board for EACH character…..what is their arc? (I love doing this!!)
Look at a place where there should be tension…WHERE A SUBPLOT SHOULD BE EXPERIENCING A TURNING POINT:
Without reading the scene, write down: what does this scene need to do? Draw out the purpose. Instead of trying to work with what you have, write the scene fresh. Ask yourself: what must change in this scene? What must happen? Is there a turning point in the scene? Does it reflect the external or internal motivation of the character?
Analyze Transitions: Look at white space breaks and chapter breaks, places where you can transition smoothly between plot and subplots. Do these transitions make sense? Does the story continue to move forward? Does the tone shift? If so, why? Can you leapfrog a story line? Can you put a character in the middle of a crisis and leap frog to another character where you get us involved emotionally, before leap-frogging back to the first story line. Can you use subplots for anticipation? Foreshadowing?
Look at range. Does your subplot affect the main plot in a BIG way?
Remember: plots can reflect a theme, but they need to emerge honestly…..not just to make a theme stronger.
Does at least one character come into every scene with a goal????? WHEN THE SCENE IS OVER, IS THE GOAL MET??????
Are your characters boring? Bored readers won’t finish your story.
Does your plot feel logical, but still offer surprises? With each new scene or chapter, stop and think about what is expected next. Don’t do it. Instead, jump ahead a bit more than expected.
Look at the concrete DETAILS….at the scene’s opening, set the scene, especially the emotional tone. Do this by careful selection of sensory details and the specific words you use to describe what is happening.
Focus on emotion. Always remember to make us care about a character before springing danger.
Avoid clichés. Brainstorm like crazy. Before you start a scene/chapter, list ten possible events and sequence of events. Yes. Ten. Not nine. Not eight. Ten. Force yourself to go beyond the cliche that you thought of first and go on to something different, more striking and more original.
When I am struggling with a novel, my editor asks me, “What is it that you are trying to say?” Often in the beginning, I do not know. But when I do, when I know WHY I am writing—what my themes are—then subplots begin to emerge. I don’t always know which ones will support or change the ending, and which ones are just helping me get to the next draft…but I am learning more each day. What I want to leave you with today: Don’t minimize that role. RE IMAGINE. Think with logic. Don’t be afraid to explore. The secondary characters serve a purpose. They help you understand your story, what your readers will want, what they will not skip, what they will remember long after the book has been read. When you have secondary characters and subplot that resonate and reflect what you want to say, you are one step closer to submitting a novel that readers will not be able to put down. That they can’t put down.
Want to talk more about subplots? Please ask me questions. I loved working on this speech/essay. Want to see Elliot’s presidential facts on video? I’ll post them every Tues and Fri on my FB page!