Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Engaging Subplots--Or How Writing is Like Knitting


I have always viewed storytelling to be somewhat akin to weaving. The artist starts with various pieces of yarn and has an end goal of fashioning all of them into a coherent pattern without getting everything into a big jumble of knots.

Let's switch from the weaving comparison to a knitting one, mostly because I've have some experience knitting (...I'm still working on that scarf I promised Crystal for Christmas 2006...). Sure you can knit a simple scarf with a basic stitch from start to finish and it will get the job done, but that's not terribly interesting. If you add a bit of texture to it with a more complex stitch or add in some different colors, your scarf will be more unique. You can also make a hat or some matching gloves.


Plot Layers
The more complex pattern that adds depth and texture to a knitted piece is like plot layers added to the main plot line. This catches the reader's eye and keeps them engaged.

A well executed plot layer will allow you to delve deeper into your character and discover facets of them that you would not have been able to explore other wise. People are not truly single minded. What else is going on in your protagonist's life? Perhaps he or she has to deal with something from their past. Or maybe there is a love interest that is risking the outcome of the main objective (or the main objective is risking the outcome of the love interest).

When first introduced the subplot will run parallel to the main story, but somewhere along the way it might be the primary objective for a chapter or two before coming back to the main story line. Just be careful to make sure that it doesn't overtake the main objective. But it shouldn't be thrown in willy-nilly. By the end of the book (preferably during the climax) your sub plot should be directly affecting your main objective sending the piece to a crescendo (oops..off of knitting and on to music...going back to original extended metaphor).


Side Plots
The other colors are like side plot lines. They are different, but add to the whole of the piece. They allow the reader to engage with other characters. Just like a different yarn color can complement or juxtapose against the primary color of the piece, so can subplots.

Each color is added for a reason, and the same should hold true for your secondary characters. You don't just take a finished piece and randomly poke some other color through out. Even if it looks random, the other colors of yarn are there for a purpose to add to the piece as a whole. You can't just throw in side plot lines to the novel. It needs to build on what is going on in the novel and augment it in some way.

Also, even though it is a different color, it has a purpose and a pattern. Your secondary characters all have back stories and needs and desires. They might not be the main character in your novel, but every real person feels like the main character in his or her own story. You might not have time or reason to tap into more of the character, especially those of bit parts, but make sure that they follow a pattern and add to the piece as a whole.



Each of these pattern and colors layer upon each other. At the end the pattern should be complete. You don't just randomly wrap up a complex knitting piece half way through a stitch set. You finish up the stitch, make sure everything looks even and that the side colors and textures are not out weighing the work as a whole. In novel writing we do have one advantage over knitting. Once the novel is complete, you can go back and fix weak side colors or incomplete complementary patterns. Look at your novel. Is it lopsided? Does it have enough depth and texture? Make sure you've knitted it together correctly because proper leveraging of subplots will add tension, depth, texture, and ensure the readers keep turning the pages of your novel, veraciously wanting to know what happens next.

18 tidbits:

Sepiru Chris said...

This is why I write non-fiction...

As usual, very interesting. Thanks.

spyscribbler said...

I love those layers. I love lots of colors weaved in my stories!

strugglingwriter said...

This is something to keep in mind as I work on my second draft. Thanks for this.

Paul

lynn said...

It's funny how people look at complicated, intricate woven/knitted art/clothing and say 'wow, that's impressive, I could never do that!' but then everybody and their mother thinks that writing a novel is easy ... until they try it :) Then they realize that the textures and nuances of subplots and characters are just as difficult to blend as the components of a physical work of art.

But it totally rocks that we can go back and edit our work--my sister's a sculptor, and if she screws up the firing or glazing of a piece, she just has to start over, whereas I get to tweak until I'm satisfied :)

Lauren said...

@chris- Non-fiction has fun all of its own. I write technical non-fiction on the side. Often I think it's harder than fiction.

Lauren said...

@spy- I'm a bit aditcted to layers. That's why I can't do short stories.

Lauren said...

@paul- Good luck with your second draft :)

Lauren said...

@lynn- I definetly think that knitting is easier than writing. And I also think that our ability to go back and continually tweak almost makes novel writing more dificult...although glazing wrong when everything else is perfect must make for a *very* bad day. At least we can just hit undo.

Bayjb said...

This is a very interesting theory about knitting and writing. I suck at knitting but I'm a good writer. Maybe this will turn around now.

Kat said...

Nice analogy! You have some great information about plot weaving and layers as well. Too bad I was never any good at knitting- hopefully I'll have better luck writing. :p

Charles Gramlich said...

Good analogy. I'll have to give it some thought. Did you ever read CLive Barker's "WeaveWorld?" It had an interesting premise that makes me think of your comments here.

Lauren said...

@Bayjb- Good luck with the knitting and the writing :-P

@Kat- My main trouble with knitting is follow through, although I do enjoy it. I'm just hoping I don't have the some troubles with writing.


@Charles- I haven't read it, but now I want too. I just googled it. Looks really interesting. Thanks for mentioning it.

The Blonde Duck said...

That's a really good metaphor!

justin manas prince jaspher ligin said...

interesting work i think, i hope i can spend some time in this preparation..

stu said...

The hard part is making sure each element adds to the main plot, or rather, that it approaches the same general issue as the main plot from a slightly different angle.

Lauren said...

@duck- Thanks! I'm thinking about doing more extended metaphores. It was fun to write.

@justin- Good luck :)

@stu- I agree. The piece as a whole needs to be consistent and put together. Clashing colors and patterns are bad :)

Barry said...

Although I don't knit, or write books, this made a great deal of sense.

Lauren said...

@Barry- Thanks. I think that many different forms of art pull from similar concepts :)

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