Using Subplot to Deepen Your Story

Alongside our main plot, subplots help to deepen our stories, either by contrasting or echoing the main plot and its themes. They can provide much needed relief or tension and help to shape your main plot. So what do we need to know about them? Let’s take a look.

Like your main plot, subplots have a setup, rising action, a climax, and an ending that should be wrapped up before your main plot’s resolution. Subplots should also have a character who pursues a goal and faces obstacles and conflict because of that pursuit. Make your subplots strong and plan them beforehand, like you would do for your main plot.

If your story is highly dramatic, use a comedic subplot to give readers a break. Use subplot to build tension and suspense, or to relieve it depending on your main plot. You can do this by delaying information about the main plot to add to the suspense or by taking the reader away from the main action as a break from the main plot’s tension.

Subplots can echo the theme of the main plot, adding depth and complexity to your story. They can also test your character’s morality and strength as they try to achieve their goal. And subplots can be used for further characterization or to develop side characters.

Don’t have too many subplots going on in one story. Up to two is a good rule to follow before your story and your readers get overwhelmed.

The love interest is the most common subplot used, but showing character growth, giving the character flaws like addiction, or showing obstacles for the protagonist to overcome are a few other subplots you can use. These all help to further characterization and reader’s understanding of your characters. They can also add to the themes of your story.

Which subplots do you like writing best? Share your comments below and, as always, happy writing!

Julia

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The Mary Sue

****Update****

Before we get down to business I wanted to update you all on what’s going on in my writing life. I have begun as a columnist at a great site for writers, Our Write Side and you can check out my articles right here every Tuesday. Those articles usually answer a more specific topic that I mention here briefly so it’s great supplemental reading without being too redundant. Check out my column and let me know what you think.

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The Mary Sue. Who is she and why is she such a problem? Let’s find out. The Mary Sue character is often a perfect or idealized version of the author. However tempting it may be to write an awesome version of yourself, it makes for a flat character and a cliché. The Mary Sue is so special that nothing can defeat her (boring) and so perfect, not to mention gorgeous and beloved by all, she becomes unrelatable and dull. There’s no tension, no conflict, no suspense, and no character growth. These are all big no-nos. We’re supposed to write what we know, but creating a character that is wish-fulfillment for yourself is not the way to go.

Characters need flaws and weaknesses to make them more human and well-rounded (check here for more on that) and also to grow in their character arc. No change in your characters, no story. It’s as simple as that. We want interesting and dynamic main characters, not Mary Sues. Also be wary of giving your super special Mary Sue likeable flaws that aren’t really flaws at all, like being clumsy or endearingly dorky. Give her a real weakness and add suspense and real conflict to your story.

You can draw from your own life and have similarities between yourself and your character. Just don’t make them too idealized or too bland (real life doesn’t always translate well as drama). And don’t think Mary Sue only applies to female characters, there are Marty Stus with the exact same problems.

Now that you know what makes a bad Mary Sue you can write stronger characters that may or may not have some similar attributes to yourself. After all we writers put a little bit of ourselves in every character. Just be aware of what doesn’t work and why. What’s your take on Mary Sue characters? What’s the worst Mary Sue you’ve ever read? Comment below and happy writing.

Julia

Writing well-rounded Characters

I’ve decided to keep this blog dedicated to writing, whether that’s my writing or any aspect of the writing process. I meet with a lovely pair of writers each week where we explore different aspects of writing. So, much of this blog will probably be gleaned from my writer’s group, but should be as helpful and informative as our group has been so that we can all advance as writers. I encourage all of you to join local writing groups or start one of your own if there aren’t any where you live. They are wonderful.

I thought we could cover characterization for this first foray because characters are so vital to our stories. The best plot will fall flat on its face if it’s peopled by weak characters. Characters really are the life of our writing and key to our readers becoming immersed in our story. So how do we write strong characters?

Know the clichés and how to break them. Now it’s easy to quibble about the difference between clichés and archetypes, but I think if we’re honest about it, we know which ones are overused. We don’t have to stay away from the archetypes, we just have to be self-aware about them. Want to use the lover? Just don’t make him your dark and brooding solution to your Mary Sue. Got your hero? Don’t make him an orphan with a destiny. We already have Harry Potter. You get my point.

Make sure your characters all have flaws. Especially your protagonist and antagonist (they should be evenly matched in both abilities and weaknesses, but that’s for another time). Nobody likes someone perfect and flaws help make your characters relatable (good thing) and makes your story more interesting (double win).

Give your characters some quirks. Strange habits or mannerisms make people human. Give your characters an idiosyncrasy and watch them emerge into real life (almost).

Character goals are a must. Everyone has goals, desires, ambitions. As with flaws, giving your character a goal or ambition is the easiest way to make your character relatable and those goals push your plot forward. Make every character want something, even if it’s just to be left alone.

Know your characters’ histories, but don’t bog down your story with backstory. Your story is in the present so you don’t want to slow down your action by putting too much unnecessary information in, no matter how tempting it is. Only give information that helps drive your present story forward.

Let them fail, let them struggle, let them work for it. This not only creates suspense, but it also shows off every aspect of your characters’ personalities. Are they graceful under pressure? Or do they snap?

Know POV and each character’s point of view. Each character has a unique personality, way of thinking, and upbringing and just like every person has a different perspective on things your characters should as well. So make sure each character’s perspective is defined and on display. Know your character inside and out.

Pay attention to how they speak, use diction, use slang, etc. This means dialect, grammar usage or lack thereof, mannerisms and gestures, and accents are all ways to showcase your individual characters as their lovely, unique selves. Figure out how each one speaks and keep them distinct from one another. Readers should be able to identify each character based on how they talk. Also keep in mind things like sarcasm and sense of humor.

Finally, focus on character development. How do your characters change and grow from the story’s conflict? How do they redeem themselves from unforgiveable acts? What epiphanies did they have along the way? Who are they now? These questions should be clear by the end of your story if you have well-rounded, fleshed-out characters. That’s why it’s so important as authors to be able to answer them before we write (or as we write if you’re a pantser). Think and develop your characters and you’ll add always beneficial depth to your story.

Not every character needs to be fully developed, you will have minor characters, but every character that affects the story does need to be. That includes your antagonist. A fun exercise in characterization we did in my writing group was to choose a personality type from the Myers-Briggs types, choose a character flaw, choose a character goal and write a full character sketch from that. The personality types are great for writers exploring characters that are completely different to them. They really give a lot of depth to characters so play around with the Myers-Briggs types.

Hope these tips helped, if you have any sage advice I neglected, share it in the comments. Happy writing!