So I’ve been wanting to do a post on Subplotting for a while now, but I realized that I couldn’t without addressing a component issue first:
Namely the advice, or some variant of: Everything must advance plot and/or develop character
I happen to agree with this advice, however like many of the pithy sayings about writing that get thrown around, its more complicated/challenging to fully grasp and explain. Some have rejected the idea thinking the suggestion is that a novel must move at breakneck speed and pacing, which anyone who has read a book knows is not the case.
But what does it mean then?
My theory is that every word in fiction needs to serve the story. I ‘ve melodramatically underlined the word because I think the term serve is provides far more guidance than advancing plot, or developing character. My problem with the former is that “advancing plot” feels very cloistering, very constricting, like you can’t depict anything that doesn’t shove events towards a conclusion (more on the latter in a second)
Now I will say one thing about plots – they do need to move ever forwards. Pointless flashbacks, repetition and irrelevant ‘side-quests’ are deadly for a strong novel. That is not to say a story must storm forward with the momentum of a charging rhino, but that backwards is not the way to go.
Things can happen however that don’t ‘mechanically’ drive the story further, like adding depth to a character, exploring subplots, and stuff that while it doesn’t ‘advance’ the plot, it may deepen it by making the characters more relatable making the fictional world feel more authentic and so forth.
Which brings me to the latter: developing character. I actually feel like this can be misleading in the opposite direction to my last rant. Not all character development is necessary for a story. I think that depicting the vital parts of characters and their development is one of the hardest parts of story-telling.
And that’s why I’m focusing on the phrase serving the story (BTW I nicked the phrase from a bass player who talking about ‘serving the song’) I do believe that as writers we need to scrutinize our words and why they are there, but I feel its far better to consider what purpose they serve. Words can serve many purposes within a story, they may work to draw tension out, to heighten the tension of an individual scene to advance plot or relevantly develop character.
To round off my point, an example.
Lord of the Rings (specifically The Fellowship of the Ring)
I love this story, but even I have to agree that Tolkien spent a hella lot of time in the Shire. For those only familiar with the movies and not the books, Frodo and his crew visit at least twice as many places within The Shire and spend considerable more time (like 17 years more time). In many respects this doesn’t advance plot, after all the plot is all about the ring, Sauron, Mt Doom etc, who cares about all these Shire-folk. It doesn’t develop much character either, yes it shows Frodo’s interactions with his people which is very important, BUT what all this Shire-centric stuff does it put incredible stakes on the story.
You in many respects The Shire is the point of Lord of the Rings. The hobbit’s motivation that powers them all through their individual tales is wanting to save and preserve The Shire. As a big fan I could go on and on, but my point is even thought The Shire has very little to do with the plot of LoTR, it has a lot to do with deepening the story.
I guess my ultimate point is: there is a lot to cover in fiction, especially novels – while it is true that many novice errors in writing can be attributed to pointless words, it’s also true that their is a wide variety of purposes for words to serve in a story. Just a caveat, this isn’t a half-ass excuse to justify crappy writing (uh uh this lengthy description of weather represents the brooding heroes mood) but an attempt to make sense of a piece of writing advice that on first brush appears contradicted by the meandering process of story-telling.
So all of this was actually in service of my next topic which is subplots. A topic which has been confusing me for weeks. The reason I had to smash this thesis out first is that again serving the story is exactly what subplots should do too – crap did I just spoil my own blog post?
What are your thoughts on the subject – have I missed the mark, or does the mark need some more development?
Would love to hear your thoughts…