To Sub-plot, or Not To Sub-plot: THAT Is the Question

I am coming up on the end of the novel. I am staring page 200 (single-spaced page 200) in the face, and my narrative word count is up to 108,000 (AKA, pretty honkin’ long). That means, with the amount of scenes and events I have left to write, that the final draft will be about 130K (AKA, effing loooooong).

I haven’t gone back through the first, oh, two-thirds of the story since I wrote it and moved further on in the outline, except in bits and pieces to get the details of a scene I’m referencing later correct.  So I don’t know how much fat could be trimmed from earlier in the narrative…but my guess is, not enough to get this back into my goal range of 100-100K. 

A couple days ago the notion occurred to me that I might have built in an unnecessary sub-plot, and an unnecesary villain.  When I conceived the story, one of the running catalysts for bringing the hero back into the heroine’s sphere was the actions of a man who wants revenge on her brother. The only problem is that I’m not sure I have a satisfying explanation for why his harrassment is spread out over the course of three or four months, or why it seems half-hearted enough that no serious damage is ever incurred, or why pretty much all of the characters seem to forget about him except when dealing with the direct consequences of his actions. 

Really it was that last that made me wonder if his villainy was actually necessary, or if I had found my fat.  See, the problem is that I have two antagonists right now: the harrasser, and society (with a deep hat tip to Tessa Dare for pointing out how many romance novels don’t have a villain other than society).  I am not saying two villains are incompatible. I may well decide that both ARE necessary for the story. But I’m not sure. I think I’m resisting the idea of cutting the invidual villain subplot because there are certain events connected with it that I really love, but my instincts are saying he’s not necessary. Especially getting toward the end of the narrative, identical events can happen for different–and in all honesty, perhaps more dramatic and compelling (in terms of being a character motivator)–reasons.

Cutting him out now would require recalibrating very few of my closing events, but it would entail a fair amount of re-writing and perhaps re-envisioning of earlier scenes.

Dilemma, conundrum, quagmire, et cetera.

Anyone else struggled with this? What did you decide, and were you happy with the decision?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “To Sub-plot, or Not To Sub-plot: THAT Is the Question

  1. Yes, I have struggled with this. And I’m looking at a 30k novel where I cut a sub-plot out early on.

    I didn’t want 2 villains – I felt like I was trying to write 2 stories at once. But now I’m 50k short of my 80k goal. Some of my writer friends assure me that the natural length of the story is best. Forcing it into a mold isn’t a good idea.

    I honestly haven’t a clue what to do at this point. So I’ve put it up for now. I’ll go back to it in a day or two.

    • I fully agree with your friends who said let a story be its natural length. The question you have to figure out is what story you’re telling. If the story you’re telling has two villains, after all, then its natural length probably will be closer to 80K. If the story only has the one, it might be commplete at 30K.

      If it’s a self-pub project, don’t sweat the fact that it’s a novella. That has become a viable length again. I am personally very fond of novellas as both a reader and a writer for the precise reason that they DON’T have subplots. Generally a novella is an expanded way of telling a single-plot story. So if the chracters feel well developed and the events feel evenly paced and the story is complete…it’s complete.

      After running the specifics of my dilemma past a friend, I’m leaning toward cutting the subplot because it’s unnecessary and because it actually dilutes the power that later events have if they happen for a different reason. I still haven’t back-shifted all the events from earlier, but I think it can work, and I think my story will be stronger for it.

      As you say, put it aside for a little while. Sometimes when you come back to it with a clear head the course of action is absolutely obvious. Keep me updated!

  2. I have that problem with Ordinary World. Sort of. I never thought to use the particular word, but “society” works well. Society is my real villain, but there’s at least three other villains who “bite” at the story line enough to be important. I know – and I’ve been told – that one, Nita, isn’t fleshed out well enough and is failing as a sub-plot. Which sucks, because of all three of them, she is the most important antagonist, in every sense of the word, in my main’s world and will be for years to come after this book. What to do, what to do?

    Can’t cut her, absolutely cannot, though I’ve thought about it. So I’m going to try a little trick Kim Harrison suggested on her blog. (I think it was Kim, I have a terrible memory like that.) I’m going to print it out and take every chapter, in order, where Nita appears or is mentioned and read only them. It removes the distraction of all other chapters and allows you to see that sub-plot more clearly. This was recommended as a way to look for consistency in character development, but I can see it as useful this way as well.

    Then I have to research cicadas all over again, which is a whole ‘nother issue. *sigh*

    • Something I did once that helped – I combined characters. I went from over a dozen undeveloped characters to 8 characters. By putting 3 characters into 1, I had a better story.

      • K.A., I cut one character out of a scene because another was already there and could fill his purpose, so I understand that completely. I think the case with this particular sub-plot problem is I’ve been paying so much attention to the main plot that I’ve not expressed the sub-plot thoroughly enough on the page. “Too much in the writer’s head” and all that rot. Nita’s fleshed out fine in my head, but staying there and not making it to the page is doing me no good.

        I’ve not looked at it in a few weeks, so maybe I’ll have a clearer view when I pick it back up.

        Nice to “meet” you.

  3. I like that tip of singling out subplots. Seems like it would be efffective.

    I haven’t written in a series, but I imagine subplots for a series are different than they are with a standalone. They don’t have to be part of the discreet arc of that story, and they don’t have to be resolved. They just have to feel natural, like threads of the tapestry of the character’s life that may not be part of that particular section but that are woven behind it, omnipresent, waiting for their time to get pulled to the forefront…

    Also, that was beautiful to see two writers not me discussing craft here. 🙂 Carry on.

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