16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.

Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?


  1. Subplots. Oh, yes. Never wrote a mystery novel without subplots. There's always a love interest, romance, in the background with its own plot line. With my first-person private eye narratives, I usually have the PI working multiple cases. It's not as difficult when writing police homicide novels because no homicide detective works one case unless they are on a task force. I did not say it's easy. Nothing is easy when writing.

  2. Working on a subplot even as we speak. Since I write mostly short stories, I can generally only fit in one sub-plot (sometimes 2), and they're very good for humanizing the main characters and/or being a red herring to what's really going on and/or needed humor. I've come to realize that often start off with the subplot, as in "No Fences", where the subplot - of a school librarian's affair with a student, who happened to be her next door neighbor - seemed to be the obvious "crap's going to happen". But then there were things going on next door, too... So.

  3. Eve,

    Lately, I've started thinking of the difference between a short story, a novella, and a novel as how many subplots they contain. My short stories generally have the main plot and maybe a subplot, my novellas (I've only written two) usually have two subplots, and the novels more, depending on how many supporting characters seem to be worth more stage time. That often changes in revision, too.

    O'Neil, I always admired the way Ed McBain could juggle the different cases/plots in his 87th precinct novels. It added to the realistic feel when the detectives had to keep several dinner plates spinning.

    As for easy, someone (maybe me) once said, "It never gets easier; you get better."

  4. It never gets easier - you get better. Love that. I was on a panel with Linwood Barclay and we were asked that question. Does it get easier, with each successive novel? We both agreed it got harder. Expectations are so high. And we've already used a lot of our good ideas (and in my case, humour.)

    As I was reading this, Steve, I was thinking that I actually prefer the shorter novels of old. So many times, in reading mystery books today, I find myself saying, Get on with it, already! And of course, half of my books - the ones with Orca Publishers - are novella length. I guess that's no surprise.

  5. Melodie,

    I like shorter, too. Some of the big blockbusters now feel padded to the point where I wonder if the writer had a character he just COULDN'T BEAR TO CUT (so much for murder your darlings) and stuck his or her subplot into this book because there wasn't enough of that plot or character to carry a book alone.

    That said, I am a point where if I'm reading in bed now, it's probably on my kindle so the big book isn't a strain on my typing wrists anymore...

  6. Melodie and Steve, I agree - I liked the old, shorter Nero Wolfes, Agatha Christies, etc. They were good, interesting, fun, with great plots, great twists, and did not make you feel, as you weighed the book in your hand, "Is this really going to be worth the extra time it's going to take to read all of this?"

    To be perfectly honest, this is one of the main reasons I gave up on most fantasy novels - they all turned into multi-volume sagas with each volume being 1,000 pages. And most of them aren't Tolkein, to put it mildly. (I googled this: Outlander, 8 books, 7,500 pages - I'll pass.) Same reason I gave up on Ken Follett. I read the 983 pages of "The Pillars of the Earth" with a certain grim determination towards the end and decided, nope. No more.


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