4.13.2017

Unable to Braid

Any novel is a puzzle whose pieces only gradually fall into place. When these pieces consist mainly of bits of plot, an author runs the risk of not devising enough of them to keep the reader intrigued about what comes next. That’s one reason that subplots are so common. Not only does it afford the author more pieces, but the very act of switching back and forth keeps readers off balance.

In the mystery genre, the different plot strands are supposed to intertwine by the end. For instance, the reader thinks that Hoss is merely having trouble with his gym, but it turns out the gym owners are running a scam that is broken open by his wife, Leslie. While writers not as bound by conventions can allow their plot threads to wander further apart, what happens when they become too dissimilar?

Let’s extend the example above. Same Hoss and Leslie, same plot lines. Hoss gets more and more angry at the gym owner about his lousy equipment. Leslie narrows in on the culprits of a drug deal that has gone murderously wrong. If the two plots continue to show no correlation, I’ll start to wonder: why am I reading about Hoss and the creaky punching bag while Leslie is pulling a gun on a shady lawyer? The author is setting up competing plot lines, and in that case I’m going to start skimming the less interesting one.

A greater problem arises when a main character wanders for too long in an endeavor unrelated to the main plot. It’s admirable, for instance, that Hoss was 101st Airborne, but if he spends too much time helping out a buddy at Fort Bragg, I’ll start to wonder: how is the author going to tie this in with the crime that is engaging the efforts of all of his other characters? The protagonist is divorced from his own book.

An author does have the right to do whatever she wants in the name of artistic expression. I will point out, though, that a reader may feel dissatisfied by the dissonance. The plots don't have to be tied up neatly in a bow. The bad guys don’t have to be punished. The questions the novel raises don’t have to be answered. But I don't want to feel that the reading experience is random. If I want that, I don’t have to read a book. I’ll just walk down the street.

Exercise: When you are picking out possible subplots, it’s useful to think in terms of support. How are the supporting players, such as one helming a subplot, supporting the protagonist? The means can be indirect, or the plots may run on parallel lines, but by the end of both, the reader shouldn’t feel she was reading two different books.

“No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
—W. H. Auden

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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