Posts Tagged ‘novel theme’

Dying by the side of the road

Some days do you think, why the hell am I writing, anyway? The industry is hard, have you noticed? A dozen reasons not to write spring up immediately: bad back; family neglected while you’re thinking of plot; lousy pay.

We claim that we soldier on because we love to tell stories. We love to write. But is this the truth? I guess it is for some who are addicted to their own words on a page. I don’t intend to be particularly snarky when I say that, but if I’m being provocative, I have a reason. I’m calling on us to remember the real reason we write so that when the tough times come we won’t plague ourselves with thoughts of giving up.

It ain’t easy

We should be writing stories that matter. They don’t need to be pretentious and preachy, but they should say something. If our stories aren’t more than popcorn entertainment, would we really want to endure all the demands of the writing life?

What demands? To name a few:

  • to write every day
  • to meet our publishing deadlines
  • to promote our work on the web and through social media
  • to maintain visibility with appearances
  • to understand business basics and the publishing industry in particular
  • to stay abreast of the books coming out from friends, role models, and different publishers
  • to refresh our sources of inspiration through paying close attention to the world, popular culture, current events
  • to pay it forward in the industry, helping others gain a foothold
  • to manage one’s writing desk, taxes, contracts and electronic tools

Let’s stop. I’m getting cranky just thinking about all I haven’t done today.

The purpose of writing

Writing is not fun. In this self-promotion-obsessed world we may create on-line fantasy images of the writing life, but every writer who reads my Facebook page knows that what I put up there is not the full story. Writing is an art and a craft, and we sacrifice a lot to stay in the business. That being the case, it sure seems to me that it’s not enough to entertain thoughtlessly. There should be more to it than turning our brains into kudzu-producing fiction machines.

You knew that, but sometimes a challenging reminder helps to clean up the cobwebs. You know, those days when we’re lost for a premise, or tempted to immediately roll over when a publisher says, “Write me another like that last one.”

I’m thinking back to May when Bob Mayer spoke at Write on the River. He gave a fabulous example of writing stories that matter. For days I couldn’t get the lesson out of my mind. Here was his example:

In the 2005 movie Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (played by Joaquim Phoenix), auditions a gospel song in front of a guy from a music label. The rep isn’t impressed. He tells Cash that his heart wasn’t in it. Cash says, “You saying I don’t believe in God?” The rep says he’s heard gospel songs a million times. He tells Cash to sing a song like it’s his last chance. As though his truck rolled over and he’s dying on the side of the road and he needs to let God know what he felt about his time here on earth. “One song that would sum you up. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”

In that moment in class I remembered why I write. To find meaning, to say what I’ve done with my years, what I know and what I wish I knew. Maybe, like me, just remembering this truth can bring you to the heart of your story or show you a story that no one else can write.

Gosh, this all sounds a bit serious. Like everyone, I do love a good beach book and one that will fend off numbing boredom on a long plane ride. I might even write an occasional book or short story like that. But I’m here to say, such books are only interludes between the real work we have before us: the songs that God wants to hear when your truck dumps you on the side of the road.


For more on the topic of “heart,” here are some previous posts:

The Heart of Your Story

The Heart of POV

Playing with subplots

I’ve heard writing teachers say that you should avoid subplots for your first few novels. What? We don’t get to play in the full sandbox? I don’t think I’ve ever written a book without a subplot or a bunch of ’em.

Subplots are story lines in addition to the main one. They often feature a different point of view character, but not always. For instance, if your detective falls in love, he may pursue his interest in a way that needs a new plot thread.

When to use subplots

The decision may depend on your story’s complexity. When the breadth or depth of your story may suggest that you’ll need more nuance to express your theme and/or deepen audience experience. Epic fantasy, for example, may gain breadth from subplots. Or the story needs to feel especially substantial because of the sweep of its plot. Another case is one in which the world needs the perspective of more than one through-line to be fully revealed. Or your story has a profound theme that can benefit from a mirror-story, or a counter-point story. That is, you want to underline your theme by proving your thesis in more than one context or you want to shade the meaning by offering a contradictory example.

Subplots can bolster the main conflict. Sometimes the main conflict needs more tension than can be reasonably found in the main story events. (Warning: this is a good reason to reexamine your concept!) A subplot can offer further conflict to your protagonist’s goals.

It may fill a structural gap. A long middle–an Act 2, if you like–may be taxing on the patience of an otherwise engaged reader. A subplot allows you to weave in another inciting incident and climax, possibly all within Act 2. Add in reversals for the subplot, and suddenly the middle of the story is keeping your reader awake at night. And at its simplest level, subplots can give us a welcome rest from the relentless momentum of the main plot.

When to skip subplots

Don’t use a subplot–not that you would–in order to spend time with a favorite supporting cast member. As interesting as that character may be, his or her story is in harness to the main plot. It is most useful when it augments the central plot in one of the above ways. Don’t let a great minor character run away with the story. She might be quirky and deep, but she’s there for the main plot or you’ll have to kill her. (And speaking of killing off characters, killing the POV character in a subplot is a nice reversal.)

You don’t need a subplot to show things outside the viewpoints of your major characters. Giving POV to a minor character for needful story information can be done without creating a story line of its own. Of course there are many ways to report information from off-stage. The choice to create a subplots should be more substantial than convenience.

Subplot tips

Aside from these larger issues, here are a few guidelines I use:

  • Make sure the subplot relates in some way to your story’s premise, or it will fracture your novel, destroying its unity.
  • Try to connect the subplot with: characters who inhabit more than one plot or have shared goals or a close relationship.
  • Don’t let a subplot upstage the appeal and empathy of your main story and character. It seems wrong and unfair, but a reader’s allegiance can be siphoned away by a riveting subplot such that they are disappointed to return to the main story.
  • Provide structure to your subplot; give it it a rising action and a climax just like the main plot. (Usually place the subplot climax before the main one, so as not to upstage your main scene.)
  • You can have some fun with subplots. Give yourself and your readers a break; try some humor or over-the-top characterization.
  • There are stories that are multi-plot. “Crash” with Matt Dillon is a film example. If you’re writing one of these, you’re not really using subplots, and you’ll be operating in a different context.

A last caveat. I’ve heard editors say that they prefer novels with no more than two subplots. Otherwise they feel you are over-stuffing the story. I routinely ignore this advice in service of big novels. But if you’re just starting out, you might want to bear this caution in mind.