Being a Better Writer: The Subplot Before the Main Plot

AKA, the lead-in.

Welcome back readers! I hope you had a wonderful weekend, and didn’t forget until too late that it was Mother’s Day! Quarantine or not, I hope that all of us had time in our day this weekend for our mothers!

I hope you also had time this weekend for the newest entry in Fireteam Freelance: The Anvil interview! Which may be all kinds of unreliable, and not because of the party carrying out the interview!

But here’s something I’ll bet a number of you didn’t know: That wasn’t the only interview of note to go up this weekend. No, this last Friday I was informed that an interview I gave post LTUE for Nicholas Adams had gone live at last!

You can read the whole thing here. Be warned, it’s a bit lengthy (shocking, I know). But I had fun, and there were some intriguing questions you guys may enjoy seeing my answers to.

Second-to-last bit of news before we get to the meat of things (but not least), Shadow of an Empire picked up several reviews this last week, all of them favorable. After languishing a bit in the “shadow” (pun intended) of Colony, it’s nice to see that Shadow of an Empire is finally getting the attention it’s worthy of!

This isn’t why it’s the image header for this post, actually. Though it does flow rather nicely into today’s topic as Shadow serves a good example of what we’ll be talking about. I’m certain more than a few of you saw the title and wondered “Well what’s this about?”

One last bit of news first. Well, a reminder, really. Requests for Being a Better Writer topics are still open! If there’s something you’ve always wanted to hear about, be sure to hop on over to this post and tell us what you’d like to hear about!

Okay! That’s all the news! It’s done and out of the way! So then, let’s talk about the subplot before the main plot.

I know what many of you are thinking right now. “Isn’t a sub-plot something that happens as an aside or piece of the main plot? Like a character romance that takes place alongside the larger story?”

Sure! That’s one use of a subplot, certainly. But one that sees far less attention, yet can be just as important to any story is the the lead-in subplot chosen to be part of a book’s “hook.”

Now, we’ve talked about hooks before on this site, but that’s not entirely our focus today. A hook, after all, is a line, paragraph, or sometimes even a chapter that “hooks” a reader like a fish, pulling them into your story. Today’s topic is part of that … but in a less, shall we say, directly noticeable fashion.

See, hooks are designed to be eye-catching. They’re phrases or introductions that are by design, unique, They want to be noticed. While what we’re speaking of today, a lead-in sub-plot, helps in that regard, but delivers promises and examples to the reader, rather than just being something cool and eye-catching.

I realize that this may sound a bit confusing (perhaps even to the degree that some of you are wondering what I’m going on about, especially with regards to distinction) so let me clarify and then offer an example of what we’re talking about with the following statement:

A lead-in subplot can contain the hook, but is not required to have a hook.

Does that help? Visualize it like one of those Venn diagrams where two points intersect. To put it another way, while a book should always have a hook of some kind (hard or soft), there’s not rule at all that says you need a lead-in subplot.

Right, example time: Say you are working on a book. It’s a prohibition-era (US period) mystery novel. You’ve worked out a massive, complicated plot involving conspiracy, criminal gangs, politicians (but I repeat myself), corrupt cops … the whole nine yards. You’ve got a long, spiraling, twisty mystery. And you’ve got some great characters who are going to drive this story for at least a few hundred pages of suspense, drama, and intrigue.

But you’ve got one big problem. This mystery is a slow burn that escalates, and you can’t start with a scene of the crime that pulls the protagonist in being carried out because it’s a false front (shhh). The character gets pulled in by happenstance while allowing the narrative to drop some important clues, so you can’t start with them at the scene of the crime … So how do you make this opening engaging?

How about by opening on them near the climax of another mystery they’ve been working to solve? A smaller one that let’s the reader preview what sort of deductive skills they’re going to show in the future of the story, what talents they’ll use on the true focus of the book, and maybe even shows off some of the writing that’ll be shown off later in your work?

This is a classic way to open a story and introduce a character or a world. I’ve used it myself. Multiple times, in fact, though the most obvious example would be Shadow of an Empire.

Shadow, for those of you who haven’t read it, does not start with Salitore Amazd meeting Meelo Karn and being sent out on to chase the antagonist of the piece. Instead it starts with Sali being on the tail-end of a bounty hunt, just having approached a murderer’s camp and engaging in a shootout before capturing them.

Said murderer has no influence or bearing on the story at all. He’s merely a vehicle. A subplot with one goal in mind: to introduce the readers to Sali and the book and let them see what both are capable of while laying promises down for the future.

That doesn’t make it any less exciting, nor does it make the promises this introductory subplot lays out any less important. One of the most important being “Stick with this story as the rest of it gets rolling. What we showed you here is a fraction of what’s coming.”

Shadow of an Empire works (and keeps grabbing mad accolades) because it then does go on to deliver on those early promises.

In other words, using a sub-plot as a lead-in to your book, or even your main plot, can be a fantastic way to introduce your characters and give examples (with implied promises) to the reader of what’s to come. It’s a flexible tool that can give you leeway in approaching a larger story while still allowing you to kick things off “with a bang.”

Now, I keep mentioning “promises” and “implied promises” here. What do I mean by that?

Well, it’s simple, and here’s where this business of using a sub-plot as a lead-in grows a bit more complicated. You can’t simple just start your book with any sub-plot, count on it to introduce your character, and call it good. You also need to consider what your subplot is showing off and promising to the reader.

This comes back to that bit about “promises.” If your story is a social thriller where every word spoken at a dinner matters, and the finale is a tense, verbal sparring match between the protagonist and the antagonist at a state dinner where the protagonist deftly maneuvers the antagonist into admitting fault publicly in a riveting display of verbal fencing, backed by a character that talks their way out of every conflict … Your intro subplot should not be them getting into a fencing duel which they win with a glorious, silent display of skill with the foil

Why not? After all, that does sound like a cool sequence, right?

But it’s not what the rest of the book will deliver. If you’re starting your book off with a sub-plot that gets resolved with a literal swordfight and then never delivers that again through the book, instead having the character deliver worldplay … Even if it’s great wordplay, the reader will be let down as they’ll be expecting more sword battles.

So while a subplot or lead-in is a great way to kick off a book, you can’t simply put down any old concept and just call it good. Whatever the lead-in is, you want it to demonstrate and promise what’s going to come in the story. Shadow of an Empire for instance, has the shootout with the murderer that isn’t very long, an example of Sali using his gift as a boiler to cauterize the man’s injury after capture, and demonstrates his skill as a man of the wilds. Each of these elements (as well as some other more cleverly hidden ones) come back up in the course of the main story, where they’re given full chapters worth of exploration, be that in shootouts, chases, survival, or other elements.

So, a subplot lead-in doesn’t just introduce your characters and give the reader a more exciting entry point into your story, it’s also a promissory note, in a way, of what’s coming. Which means that you need to tailor it so that it let’s the character show off hints of what’s coming later in the future.

Note, then, that this isn’t as restricting as it sounds. Take the example I gave above with the silent fencing match. I specified silent, which would be exciting, but what if you wanted to rework that so that it fit the character’s skill with words better? How about a fencing match in which they’re not very good, but continually talk to “disarm” their opponent, and show off their skill with words by picking and choosing them in line with, and compared to, fencing steps? You may still want to tweak the ending of your story a little so that there’s a bit of action, but flushed with the protagonist’s talent they’ve displayed.

At the same time, recall that your promises should be loose, not tight. Sali starts his lead-in with a shootout, and certainly there are plenty of shootouts over the course of the story, but even in the finale that’s not all there is. What’s promised is not just gunplay, but a type of action. Shootout-style action. And the end of the book delivers.

So if your story starts with a fencing match, the “action” delivered by the end must be an equivalent. Understand?

Now, one important note before we recap: You don’t have to promise at all “all” the types and elements of your story to come. Just one or two is enough. Think of this like a “teaser.” Colony, to take another example from my own work, doesn’t have any of the lead-in subplot chapters introducing each character feature full-fledged fleet engagements. But they do have espionage, gunplay, hacking, and covert operations, all of which the characters put to use through the rest of the story.

All right, so let’s recap quickly. A lead-in sub-plot like this is used to introduce the characters, drop new readers into some action so that there’s something gripping, plus as well to make promises regarding later content of the book and offer them teasers of what’s coming.

But that isn’t all your lead-in can do. Or rather, should do. And here I want to make an important note to this whole topic. Largely we’ve been talking of this lead-in as a subplot, IE a story that’s not part of the main plot or only loosely connected to it.

It doesn’t have to be in order to be a lead-in. I simply chose to start there because it felt like a more approachable angle to get across what the strengths and reasoning of an introduction could be. Your “sub-plot” may be related to the main plot, or may not be. It’s up to you. Either of these approaches can lay seeds for the story to come, whether or not the plot is directly related.

Take, for an example, the James Bond films. These movies always have a lead-in sub-plot of some kind, and just as often they’re split between being related to the main plot, or unrelated. Sometimes it’s simply Bond at the tail-end of another operation, delivering some explosions, gunplay, and promise of what’s to come later. But plot-wise, they have no connection to whatever Bond will be facing in the current film.

But not always. Goldeneye begins with a raid on a weapon complex that proves to be heavily central to the movies’ primary plot and antagonist. Other Bond movies have begun with the titular spy finding themselves in peril and danger tracking another lead on series baddie Blofeld.

But then there are openings that have almost nothing to do with the rest of the film past introducing the character and setting up promises for they type of action to come.

Same is true for whatever story you write. If a lead-in feels like the right step to make, it can be a sub-plot that ties directly to or leads to the main event … or it can be something largely unrelated meant to show the reader the world and characters.

It’s up to you which you want to do. But, regardless of how you choose to execute your lead-in, remember that no matter what it is making promises to your reader. Promises that you’ll need to keep in order to have happy readers.

So, a final summary: Subplot lead-ins are a great way to introduce characters and setting, offer promises of what’s to come, and entertain with something immediately gripping. They can be connected to your primary plot, or not, but regardless, they are going to make promises that a reader will expect to be delivered on.

All that said, however, they’re definitely worth the trouble of working with for some stories. So keep them in your writer’s toolbox.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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