Diminished Thump

Dramatic compression of time means running a building series of scenes within a tight time frame. This device helps to add urgency to any plot line, but it especially should be watched with subplots. Because the scenes in a minor plot don’t appear as frequently—every 25 pages, say—what is driving their tension may become attenuated as the book goes on.

Let’s take an example to see how this works: an adulterous affair. We’ll further suppose that it starts where so many do: at an out-of-town gathering in which too much drinking occurs. Someone with a roving eye, dancing too close, soft porn, and the reader is excited. This plot line sounds promising.

When the affair continues, the frequency of the two partners’ trysts becomes a factor. The heat of the sex scenes itself will fade as the book goes on—unless the author is really good at writing sex scenes. In most hands, though, an author faces the age-old problem of going to the same well too often. A plot line should build, not lose its potency.

Besides steamy sex, the other main draw of such a plot is: will a spouse find out? Different baselines can produce the same suspenseful result. Will one of the steamy duo threaten to tell all? Or, are they sure they haven’t been seen together in public? Affecting all of these is frequency of usage. If Georgia threatens to blab the next week after the convention, that is a pressing concern for Bob. But a month later, when she threatens again, the matter has less power. During the 25 pages between the two subplot scenes, hopefully a lot of other stuff has been happening. Time itself is burying the issue.

Plus, the more a stratagem such as a threat is repeated, the less interest a reader has. Months may go by, and while doom is still looming over the partner’s head, he’s gone on to participate in an outstanding number of plot events, and he may be outstanding in them. So now the reader doesn’t really care if Georgia drops the bomb. Bob may well have won our hearts in other regards, so his wife has to forgive him—or she’s the jerk.

Bob has had time to redeem himself with the reader. In other words, your main plot has subverted the aims of the subplot. Out of sight, out of mind.

Exercise: To resolve this problem, you can always compress the time frame of the subplot. Maybe it takes up a third of the book. If you want to keep it running, though, attach the characters’ interests to elements of the main plot. Georgia might start visiting the playground where Bob’s son plays every afternoon, for instance. The subplot’s tentacles are extended onto current interests the reader has, and like a parasite it too remains vital.

“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”
—Sir Walter Scott

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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