The Death of Subplots?

In this brave new world of ebooks, and especially self-publishing, how much room is there for the tangential subplot? 

I’m thinking here of things like romance novels that feature a secondary plot with two minor characters falling in love or resolving their issues, sometimes but not always relating directly back to the main story (that is, the subplot is necessary for the reader to understand why they do what they do in front of the main characters).  The label would also fit what old writers like Alexandre Dumas were fond of, too, though–I mean, if he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo now, would he include all that business in the garden with the two young lovers that has really no bearing at all to the plot except she is maybe supposed to marry the son of one of his enemies (it’s been a while), or would that be separated out as a “Count of Monte Cristo short story” and sold by itself?

I am not sure I have a judgment on this either way…on the one hand, some of those subplots are sweet and really enhance the book, but on the other hand some of them are distracting and unnecessary.  If the subplot enhances the novel, either just by being awesome, or by shedding important insights into what is going on with the main story, I don’t mind them being there.  But the flip side is, if they are awesome in their own right and contain an actual narrative arc of their own, why shouldn’t they be their own story? If it’s good people would read it, too. 

There are certainly advocates of the “publish more often and shorter pieces” school of self-publishing, and the point they raise makes me wonder if more and more writers will start breaking off subplots they might have entwined throughout the novel to create a promotional short story (either free or a $.99 story when the novel is in the $3-5 range).  Is there a risk, though, of lowering the quality of your work if you do this every time? 

For me, I think I will make the decision based on the following questions: 

  1. Is the subplot NECESSARY to advancing/understanding the main plot or does it merely enhance it (if it affects the main plotline at all)?
  2. CAN the subplot actually stand alone as its own story with a satisfying arc? 
  3. (2b.)  If the subplot can stand alone, is it likely to attract anyone’s interest, either via having interesting characters/scenario in its own right, or via being irresistible to people who read the novel? 

If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then the subplot stays with the main story.  Period.  If the answer to the second question is no, then I would think about how the partial plotline could be expanded to become a standalone story, and if I could not see how to do it then I would keep it with the main story.  If it could stand on its own, I’d look at whether anyone was likely to be interested in it, for any reason, if I did put it out there on its own.

However.  Even though in my little question flow chart the circumstances under which I would put a subplot out on sound much more constrained, the fact is the subplot would not be necessary to the main and could stand alone far more often than not…which means they would be pulled out more often than not. 

And I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Is it further proof that most stories published in the last 10-15 years have been artificially inflated to meet print standards, or are subplots actually the natural state of novels and ebooks are creating a new natural state of several interconnected novellas taking the place of what used to be novels? 

What do y’all think?  Were subplots forcible insertions included to (1) meet a word count and (2) because it was a cute story when there was no market for short stories or novellas, or are they part of our collective novel-writing history that is at risk of extinction in the new environment?

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Writing

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