to plot or to subplot

The novel-in-progress is the first where I used an actual plotting technique to plan the novel, as opposed to letting it unfold as the characters naturally reacted to the results of the decisions they’d made.

I’m 23,000 words into the novel (give or take) and I’m suddenly afraid I don’t have enough to write a full novel. I’m theoretically a quarter to a third of the way through, and now I’m thinking I’m too close to solving the central problem of the novel to make it book-length. My fear is that if I continue as planned, the novel would end at 50,000 words, and that’s far too short.

I do this on a regular basis with both writing and knitting. With knitting, it terrifies me that I’ll run out of yarn. For example, those socks I made for my husband for Christmas 2008? He has bigger feet than I do, so I bought four balls of sock yarn. Then while knitting, I panicked and went back to buy two more. Of course, the socks finished up just fine and now I have three and a half balls of yarn left over.

With the string quartet novel, at about 76,000 words I thought, “oh no! It’s going to end too soon!” (meaning, in fewer than 10,000 words, even though 85-90,000 words is fine for women’s fiction) and then at about 90,000 I thought, “Oh no! It’s going to be too long!”  It ended at 95,000 words, just where I wanted it to.

Thus my long-established habit: ever since the invention of the word count, it has frightened me. My books always seemed to have a sense about them, though, where I knew how much they needed even if I doubted it mid-writing.

Here I am, now, stuck at 23,000 words or thereabouts, afraid I’m moving through the carefully-constructed plot too quickly, and debating whether to stop now and refit it with a subplot that resonates with the theme and questions of the main plot. It would certainly be easier to do it now than to do it after completing the first draft.

Yet at the same time, I like the sense of this novel as clean, streamlined. The main character’s focus is already on her “quest” and on her work. A subplot involving her place of business or involving one of her children would definitely take up space, but would it detract from the storyline?

Oh, those decisions. I’m dwelling now with the questions and hoping an answer arises. Let the characters grow the answer to the question organically.


  1. Laura Diamond

    Would thinking of it as a novella help?

    I think writing it for what it is (meaning the nice thought out plot line you’ve got going) and letting the word count end up where it may is a first step. Then you can go back and decide what could be embellished and expanded without making it seem like “filler.” For instance, could the subplot you’re considering be intimately intertwined with the main plot, thereby flavoring it more?

    My concern, because I do this all the time, especially at the beginning, is if I’m reaching for a certain word count, I come up with all this gobbldygook (sp???) junk that ends up being cut anyway. Save yourself the agony and keep doing what your doing, which is writing a nice, concise plot. Start with the frame, then develop the decorations.

    I hope that helps. 🙂

    1. philangelus

      I’ve turned short stories into novellas before, and that worked (well, it would have worked really well had Lilley Press not gone out of business two weeks prior to the publication date! LOL!)

      But in a novel,I really think the subplot needs to be intimate with the plot. Ideally, the MC could be working on both simultaneously. Thinking of the subplot as a decoration would probably result in exactly what you say, literary gobbledygook (which I think is spelled okay…this is the postliterate era anyhow).

      If the MC’s main goal is the retrieval of a hidden relic, then the secondary goal (say, helping her child stand against a bully, or keeping the birth center from closing) would need to impede the main goal at times, and at other times it would need to at least be present enough to cause tension (will she go to the hearing to testify against the law that would shut down the birth center? Or will she go talk to the man who may know who stole the relic?). That’s why I’d want to derail progress NOW and add it in, so it’s woven into the fabric of the story such that it couldn’t be removed.

      I’m poking around a bit now researching this stuff, and I think it would work (destruction of the church resonates with the closing of a birth center, for example) but it would require restructuring.

      You’re 100% right that it CANNOT seem like filler.If it does, the reader is going to get bored and want to know why we’re diddling around with Plot Number Two when we really should be on Plot Number One.

  2. lbdiamond

    In MDR’s A Thread of Grace, she had several plot lines converging into one at the end. Each character, having a piece of the MC role, depending on the chapter, went at the main task (surviving WWII Italy) in their own way. They were dealing with their own stuff, but the iminence of the main plot continued to have a presence. So, I wonder if your subplot could include a “secondary” MC working their own plot that is either directly or indirectly related to the main story plot, but it would give tension and a word count boost. ???

    1. philangelus

      That’s like having two books double-helixed around each other, isn’t it?

      Actually, if you want a laugh, imagine Tessa telling Martin, “No, I can’t do that right now, I’m busy with Plot Number Two.” Actually, imagine Martin’s reaction to that. I might do that just to be able to write him hitting the ceiling. LOL!

  3. cricketB

    You or one of the kids will now have socks that match Daddy’s? Awwe.

    Sometimes the only connection you need is that both plots happen to the main character. Trust her to come up with conflicts between them, and trust us to come up with connections and contrasts. The contrast between her two worlds can speak volumes.

    The subplot also helps with pacing and mood, if you’re either lucky or have a really good timeline manager. If you need a laugh but the main plot won’t give one, bring in the subplot. Giving the subplot to secondary characters, so the main character is only peripherally involved, works well for that.

    Disclosure: I’ve seen this done infinitely more often than I’ve succeeded in it myself.

    1. philangelus

      But the themes of both plots need to resonate off each other regardless. They need to, in effect, be rival answers to the same question, or two approaches to the same question.

      1. cricketB

        I’m thinking of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum book about the BBQ. Very little connection between the plot and subplot. Subplot was a fun romp with the minor characters. Victim was in BBQ contest. Say, that sounds like fun. Insert much hilarity as two ADHD non-cooks (Can’t be that hard, right? Just throw in a bit more gasoline to start the coals, maybe a bottle of Tabasco) enter contest, with many in-jokes for fans of the series. The final chase scene when she’s stuck in her friends’ teams mascot costume at the cook-off didn’t hurt either.

        Mostly, the subplot bounced off the surface layer of the main plot. On a deeper level, it showed the contrast between her friends and how strange it is that she’s getting fairly good at her job as a bounty-hunter. Also showed the contrast between her friends and the other BBQ contestants, and those who took it seriously enough to murder.

        It might not work as well with more serious books, but it did here.

        Also, the TV show MASH often had multiple plots, superficially bound by the setting, but the various plots bounced off each other and worked together. Some episodes, the plots were very different. Those contrasts were the main point of the show.

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