How many subplots in a novel are acceptable?

In my Suspense/Thriller Writers’ group on Facebook, one author asked, “How many subplots in a book are acceptable?”

Most of the writers thought that one or two subplots was enough, but horror writer Rob M. Miller gave a wonderful response that I’m reposting here. Considering the ephemeral nature of Facebook, in a couple of days his comment would have disappeared into the great maw of FB, and I didn’t want it to be lost forever. Rob said:

A broad question begging for a broad answer, of which there is only one that’s truly honest, even if horribly vague:

As many as the author can competently handle.

In the hands of a master, there can be many subplots, even into the double and triple digits, as can be read in the incredible work Shogun by James Clavell, or The Hobbit by Tolkien.

But to have a masterful work, there doesn’t have to be many in order to keep the reader hooked and hungry for — One…More…Chapter!

Wiki Answers says that “subplot is like the secondary plot of your story. It means additional plot(s) to a movie, show, book, or play that help contribute to the main plot. Subplots are less important than main plots.”

swIn Star Wars you have the following plot or through line: Ragtag rebels work to stop a space station from cementing the evil emperor’s hold on the galaxy.

That’s the plot. The spine. It’s the elevator speech, as well. Short, simple, and concatenates the story. But it’s also a bit simple — isn’t it? — even for Star Wars, which is not the most complex of stories.

How many subplots are in Star Wars?

I concede the number could be argued, but c’mon, fellow writers, there is more than one, and there is more than two. The mentoring of Luke, Chewie and Han as wanted criminals (smugglers), the romantic tripod of Leia, Han, and Luke, and in my view, even more.

Subplots, mini plots, lines of suspense, how many characters there should be and the proper ratio of bad to good. These things can all be made as complicated as desired, or as complicated as hell even when not desired.

The key is to simplify the approach, at least in one’s head, like with the through line given for “Star Wars.” The final product might be beautifully written and wonderfully controlled as an epic master work, such as Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, or Tolkien’s set of Hobbit adventures, or a chunky Tom Clancy novel . . . or it can be an equally wonderful, but streamlined story. There are no rules, save for don’t write boring. There are conventions, tropes, schemes and paradigms, some of more value than others.

What to do?

Author, know thyself, and then stretch 10%, putting down a tale as best you can, whether outlined or not, large-staged or mini, small cast or jam-packed.

If you want “one” of something, go for it. Shorts, for example, are a form that generally works better when they are a drag race from point A to B, and which end in a singular climax — but I’ve read exceptions. Perhaps your idea is an exception, too. But don’t be afraid of two, or forty-two. Keep track of stuff . . . be forgiving when it turns out that Hemingway was write about first drafts being shite, and then, like a conductor or architect, you can make sure that all the balls are being juggled properly.

***
With a love for reading and writing that started in his youth, Rob has traveled far to get to the place where he can now concentrate on breaking into the horror market.

Born and raised in the “micro-hood” of Portland, Oregon, he grew up as the oldest of three children, the son of a book-lover and a book-hater.

It was after two years of free-lance stringer work, and a number of publishing credits, that he tired of non-fiction and decided to use his love of the dark, personal terrors, and talent with words to do something more beneficial for his fellow man -– SCARE THE HELL OUT OF HIM.

Seeking Stories that Live Within Us by Malcolm R. Campbell

I am delighted to welcome my guest, Malcolm R. Campbell and his newest novel “Sarabande.” Malcolm is so very generous to other authors, it’s great to be able to return the favor. Besides, he’s a fine writer who pens powerful tales, and he has better insights into storytelling than anyone I know. Malcolm says:

A living myth is told and retold as the centuries pass. Poets, painters, musicians are nourished by its imagery, and in each retelling something is added from the collective attitudes, conscious and unconscious, of the time and from the individual vision of the artist.” – Helen M. Luke in “The Laughter at the Heart of things.”

As I read Helen M. Luke’s analysis of the myth of the ring as viewed by Richard Wagner in The Ring of the Nibelungen (known as the four-part “Ring Series”) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by the fact this story is now part of our world view. Whether we learned of the myth through the original source materials, Wagner’s musical dramas, Tolkien’s books, or the feature film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, the story lives inside us as though it actually happened. Tolkien expressed contempt for Wagner’s version of the old Norse myth drawn from the 13th century Icelandic Volsung Saga. Yet most critics believe Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen (consisting of “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung”), composed between 1848 and 1874, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, written between 1937 and 1949, are different interpretations of the same myth, and that Tolkien was also influenced by Wagner. Myths often have as many interpretations as history as though they refer to actual events.

Listen to the discussions about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and you will hear people talking about Harry, Snape, Dumbledore and Voldemort in the same way they speak of celebrities, world leaders and newsmakers who come into their lives television, concerts and the Internet. All of these people, fictional or actual, are larger than life. While novel readers and film audiences know there is a difference between Tolkien’s characters and Rowling’s characters on one hand and well-known people within our culture, all of them are part of our shared story.

Earlier generations were impacted by Star Trek and Star Wars events and characters just as strongly. We know the difference between fictional characters aren’t read and that real people aren’t fictional, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. While even the most fanatical fans don’t expect to see Captain Kirk, Spock, Frodo or Hagrid searching for salad greens in the produce department at Kroger or addressing Congress about the state of the galaxy, the worlds of those characters is part of our lives as though it’s a living and breathing reality.

Most authors don’t write with the expectation that their stories will impact readers with such force that the characters will suddenly take on independent lives of their own. At best, authors hope their stories and characters will seem real while their books are being read. For a reader, there’s nothing better than plunging into a good story, becoming enchanted by it, and following it with the fervor they follow family dramas and the biggest news stories of the day.

Yet some stories catch our fancy and stay with us long after we put the book down or leave the theater. Those are the stories we seek because they take us on flights of fancy, display new worlds before our mind’s eye, and take us on physical and emotional journeys that expand our lives and enrich our imaginations. Ask any reader what his or her favorite books are, and s/he will tell you about good guys and bad guys and things that go bump in the night and awesome landscapes that are just as much a part of his or her life as co-workers, neighbors and family.

As readers, finding such novels is part of a never-ending quest for a real page turner of a story we will never forget because it lives inside us and evolves every time we read it, talk about it and think about it. As readers, we love our living fiction.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three contemporary fantasies, Sarabande (2011), Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey (2010) and The Sun Singer (2004).

Click here to read an interview with: Malcolm R. Campbell

Click here to read an excerpt of: Sarabande

Research: When Good Books Go Bad

Many good books go bad when the authors refuse to let go of any of their hard-won research and so dump it all in the novel, making the story drag. I have a tendency to put in a lot of information — though I don’t use all my research, not even most of it. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I talk (or rather my characters do) about biological weapons, biowarfare, bioengineered organisms because I thought the reality was more frightening than my fiction. For example, The World Health Organization spent years and a heap of money to eradicate smallpox, yet smallpox in ever more virulent forms is stockpiled in labs all around the world. Spooks the heck out of me!

But I digress. Daughter Am I, which will be released in October, was conceived as a way to combine two of my interests at that time — early gangster history and the mythic journey. (You might not recognize the similarity between Daughter Am I and Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, but all three are based on the same mythic journey template.) In 2007, I entered the book into the first ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest, and my prize for being a semi-finalist was a review from Publishers Weekly. After giving a summary of the plot, the reviewer ended with:

While the author certainly researched the history of the Mafia, too many of the numerous historical asides — and subplots — are tacked on under the guise of story time, making the story drag with detail abut Wyatt Earp, the JFK assassination and bootleggers. But underneath the relentless bouts of story time is a delightful treasure-hunting tale of finding one’s self in a most unlikely way.

Too many historical asides? Eek! That was the whole point of the book! I tightened up the story, got rid of the asides that didn’t go directly to character or plot, but still felt a bit uncomfortable with the situation. When I mentioned my concern about the “info dumps” to fellow author Malcolm Campbell, he responded:

Your book is wonderful. Looking into one’s past is powerful stuff, but getting tangled up with a lot of lovable scam artists is a really fresh approach. Your wonderful characterizations—that’s another thing for discussion. It’s a challenge having lots of characters while keeping them from all sounding like oneself.

The “info dumps” as you call them add a lot of depth to the book and are informative and entertaining in their own right. They support the character telling the story. But also, they provided periods of “calm” in what is a frenetic quest that zooms from one unexpected thing to another without pause. We’ve seen “these gangsters” in dozens of movies, and for me, the archetypes are those of the 1940s films my generation grew up on—and that’s appropriate since these guys are elders. They’re a much different breed of cat than we see on modern, street-wise TV shows like, say, DARK BLUE which takes us undercover right into the worst of today’s gangs and thugs.

Whew!

(The first chapters of my books are included in the mystery sampler available as a free download from Second Wind Publishing. Click here: Free Downloads.)

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Steel Waters by Ken Coffman — a Sort-of Review

When I first saw the movie Lone Hero starring Lou Diamond Phillips, I wasn’t impressed. It seemed trite — a retelling of High Noon with outlaw bikers set against the background of a wild west show. Yet the next morning, as the story slowly sank into the backwaters of my mind, one scene after another percolated to the surface, and I found myself smiling at the sly humor and wry nuances I was discovering. Lone Hero is now one of my favorite movies, one that gets richer with each viewing.

This retrospective appreciation has happened with a few other films, but I until recently I never read a book that became better with aging. Most go in one synapse and out the other before sinking into oblivion, but Steel Waters by Ken Coffman refuses to stay there.

Coffman’s wry humor and gritty descriptions immediately captivated me, but his hero didn’t. I have no use for characters (or people) who bring about their own miseries. Glen Wilson walked away from his wife and farm for no other reason than because he thought needed to. When he ended up in a Bolivian jail, I didn’t care. And neither did he. He seems to have a great capacity for accepting the status quo until suddenly he wants something else. (Usually without knowing what that something else is.)

Still, Glen Wilson was unique and compelling enough for me to keep reading. He is a mixture of opposites: hard-boiled and quixotic, opportunistic and idealistic, down-to-earth and impractical. And I enjoyed the book.

As Steel Waters percolates, however, I see much that I missed. Sure, Glen Wilson brings about his own predicament, but he is a victim of his own unresolved wants. They pull at him, buffeting him from one wild adventure to the other. The book has an episodic feel to it, but all mythic journeys do, and in the end, that is what Steel Waters is: mythic.

You are familiar with the mythic journey template. It’s the basic format of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunt for Red October. An ordinary person answers the call to adventure. Meets mentors, allies, enemies. Passes tests. Undergoes the supreme ordeal, seizes the reward, and finally returns home — a hero in truth. Or not. Coffman doesn’t follow the format exactly. Glen Wilson may or may not be a hero. He may or may not be changed. This is the beauty of the mythic journey template — it is infinitely changeable without ever losing its power.

So now I have to go back and reread Steel Waters with this percolation in mind, see the layering of the nuances and the humor. I’ll let you know if it’s as good the second time around as it is in memory.

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels

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The Mythic Journey: Star Wars, Tin Cup, and Me

New writers often rail against formulas and rules in an attempt to find their own voice, but the rules of good writing and storytelling need not be formulaic. Nor do formulas themselves need to be formulaic.

The most prevalent formula for writing fiction is the mythic journey, and two of the most obvious examples of this template are The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Does anyone doubt that these two movies tell the same story? Yet the mythic journey is not always so obvious. Tin Cup, far from the plots and contrivances of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, follows the same basic structure as they do and is equally mythic.

The movie begins in Roy McAvoy’s ordinary world, a driving range. The main call to adventure comes when his friend Romeo suggests that Roy enter the U.S. Open. Roy refuses the call, not wanting to change his ways, but he agrees when he realizes it is a way of catching the interest of the woman he loves. The woman and Romeo act as Roy’s mentors, helping him prepare for the game. He crosses the threshold into the extraordinary world when he enters the U.S. Open. As in any mythic journey, other archetypical characters (non-stereotypical but recognizable) accompany the hero Roy and help, hinder, and cheer him along the way.

Roy wants to change, and he prepares for and passes first one test and then another. Then comes the big moment, the mythic moment. He fails the final test, losing the U.S. Open, but wins his personal quest. He makes the shot he knows he can make, and he returns to the ordinary world with his ladylove. At the end he attempts to figure out what he learned, and recommits himself to another quest, next year’s U.S. Open.

Because of mythic journey formula, Tin Cup is not simply an amusing movie but is the quintessential story: an ordinary person who transforms himself into an extraordinary one.

In my own mythic journey as a writer, I have learned not to be afraid of formulas and rules, but rather to embrace them and make them my own. I hadn’t considered using the mythic journey formula again, since I already used it for my novel Daughter Am I, but my work-in-progress is the story of an ordinary man who is transformed into an extraordinary one, so whether I like it or not, I will be following the formula to a certain extent.

And I do like it. Perhaps it will give my novel a mythic aura. Not a bad quality for any story.