Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

I realize I left out a very important possible pass in the Rewriting post: the Subplot Pass.

You can improve any book or script by doing a pass through of each subplot: the love plot, the villain’s plot, the rival’s plot, the main ally’s subplot (oh MAN, do I wish more films would do an ally subplot pass…). Meaning, just take the scenes with that particular character and see how that plot builds and climaxes and arcs just on its own. There is no way that you won’t find more layers to a character, interesting plants and payoffs, great dialogue even, by looking just at that one subplot in isolation.

Try thinking like an actor: it’s a cliché, but part of the craft of acting as well, that every minor actor thinks of their character as the star of the show. This is a useful mindset when you’re doing character passes. Of course, you don’t want to do that for EVERY character – that convenience store clerk who has one line, even if it’s a colorful line, should be treated as the scenery he is.

But when I’m talking about subplot passes I don’t just mean character subplots.

In the YA I’m getting close to finishing, I have a LOT of dream sequences; it’s a main line of the book. So I’ve been doing a dream sequence pass – actually, I’ve been doing several - to make sure that I’m building what I want to build in that line of the story. When you look at just those scenes in isolation from the rest of the book, you will find connections and resonances that you can’t see when you’re reading the ms as a whole. Plus it doesn’t seem as overwhelming as rereading the entire book yet again.

Take one of your subplots and try it. You might put all the scenes in that subplot line in a separate Word file, and work it that way. It’s actually fun.

And while I’m filling in the gaps in the rewriting post – I might as well mention that when you’re doing that first read-through you will probably – most likely - find that you have not written the story you thought you were writing. Not just because it’s not as brilliant and dazzling as the idea of a story you had in your head (no finished product ever is, really) – but because you’ve actually written something else.

So part of rewriting is letting go of what you THOUGHT you were writing - and trying to see instead what you actually wrote, and how you can make the story that actually IS the best, the most involving, the most multidimensional experience that it can be. This also takes some acting on your part: you must look at the story as if you have never heard it before, and listen to what it is really telling you.

Make sense?

This idea probably should be a post all on its own, but that’s all I have time for today – I have subplot passes to do.

How about the rest of you? Is there a subplot or a subplot character in your story that could use some work?

- Alex


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)



I have succumbed and put the Screenwriting Tricks workbook up for Nook and on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)


Bobby Mangahas said...

Glad you posted this Alex. This is one of those things that I tend not to put more focus on, particularly the characters. My secondary characters have the often unfortunate circumstance of being a cookie cutter. That's one thing I've been trying to improve on. The subplots I do a little better with, though those could use work too.

Although it the actor thing does help a little. (I have also been set dressing myself :) )

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You of all people, R.J.!

USE that acting training!

Jessica Ann Hill said...

Doing a subplot pass is such a great idea! I'm definitely going to have to try that. Thanks for sharing! :)

Golden Eagle said...

A subplot pass is something I should probably work on. Stories are definitely more interesting if they've got more dimension to them. I'm glad you posted about this.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm working on my second book right now and I'll remember to do the subplot pass, as this one has many.

elfarmy17 said...

I definitely agree on the bit about not writing the story you thought you'd written. At one of my crit-group meetings, one of them suggested a totally different (yet WAY better) ending to the book. When I went back to change everything, it turned out there was little bits of foreshadowing specifically suited to the new ending. Amazing.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I wrote a book with, say, 24 significant characters. As I finished a chapter, I made a note of which characters had appeared.

Afterwards, I made 24 files, each of which consisted of every scene in which one particular character appeared.

I then read each file seperately, effectively creating 24 starring roles.

This also helped me notice when characters said something in chapter 23 that was similiar to what they said back in chapter 5 because there weren't so many words separating the scenes.

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Of course, you don’t want to do that for EVERY character – that convenience store clerk who has one line, even if it’s a colorful line, should be treated as the scenery he is.

It's so easy for me to make this mistake. I have to be very careful not to go into the heads of characters that are not important to my story.

Sure, my store clerk has her own life, and it can be fun to explore it. Last night she caught her husband kissing her sister. It was nothing, according to her husband. They just had too much to drink.

But the man standing before her, buying a gallon of milk, reminds her of her husband. And she wants to slap his lying face.

Now the reader is interested in my store clerk, and wants to know what happens to her.

But her story is only two pages long. She's done. And now my reader is upset with me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jessica, Eagle and Alex - it's great to hear people respond to this because I love books and films with well-written subplots. Subplots can do so much to convey theme, especially - I should definitely post on that sometime.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Elf, I hear stories like that all the time. It's great that you have a critique group astute enough to have picked up on the ending your story was actually trying to get you to write!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Whoa, Stephen, 24 significant characters is a ton. You would definitely need to keep careful track of subplot threads in that case.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Robert, thanks - that's a PERFECT example of letting a window dressing character run away with the story. Exactly what I mean. Don't do that!

laughingwolf said...

[tried posting earlier, but earl knocked power out, killing it]

terrific advice, alex!

acting classes make one a better writer in many ways, as you know

Largo Chimp said...

I'm a week late to this one, but your thought about the story you actually wrote versus the one you thought you were writing fascinates me.

I have FELT this in my own writing, but I did not REALIZE it. And you expressed the situation exactly. Amazing.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Saw your books in the shops today- really great!

Subplots tend to get neglected, thanks for the post!