Make Your Subplot Scenes Count

Each character attracts the reader’s attention. That is both a blessing and a curse for a writer. By the amount of coverage a character receives, you can develop cascading rhythms that favor her. That is a blessing if you want to build up to a peak at a given point in a novel. Yet it is a curse if you expect the reader to be as interested in another character merely because you place his scene in the middle of your cresting sequence devoted to her. Why should the reader be interested in that character (that not-her character)?

This problem can become acute when you are staging competing plot lines. Let's say Henrietta gets three chapters in a row, totalling 20 pages. Then Stan gets his turn—for a chapter that lasts 2 pages. Now stop at look at that math. As a reader, here’s my experience. I have to switch gears. Stan, not Henrietta, is the point-of-view character now. I first have to remember who Stan is. Don’t laugh, I frequently have to check the list of characters that I compile while reading a manuscript. Second, I have to get into Stan’s head. I have barely done that before, poof!, the scene is over. I’m left scratching my head: why did we bother switching away from Henrietta, whom I was enjoying, for this jokester who can’t even carry a decent-length scene?

Spending 20 pages with a character creates dominance. That’s who the reader wants to stay with now—because that’s what you’ve told the reader. Depending on how long a major character dominates a novel, you need to make sure that your subplot scenes have some heft to them. The reader needs to recalibrate his intellectual/emotional compass because of the long intervals in between the subplot scenes. That’s why I advise writers to consider a minimum length for a subplot scene. Depending on how long your normal chapters are, I would shoot for 5-10 pages. That not only allows the reader time to switch gears, but then become interested in whichever plot development you are laying out in that scene. Something with true dramatic weight has to happen if you’re spending five whole pages on it. That in turn will force you to do your duty by that subplot character: develop a substantial plot line for him. He shouldn’t be thrown in merely for a change of pace. He should be contributing enough to the book that we are rewarded by turning to him.

Exercise: Create a four-column chart and mark the name of a chosen subplot character at the top. Make the heading of the first column “Ch” for chapter number. The second column is “Pages” for the number of pages in the scene. The third is “Character” for the point-of-view character in the scene.  Finally, the fourth column is “Interval” or the number of pages that have elapsed since that character ran a scene. Compare Column 2 with Column 4. Do you think that character is really holding his own?

“The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
—John Steinbeck

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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