Being a Better Writer: Keeping Plots and Subplots Straight

Hello readers! Welcome back after a pretty long weekend! At least it was a long one here. Was it for you? Short or long, I hope it was good!

I also hope you readers enjoyed the latest episode of Fireteam Freelance and all its upsets! If you missed it, episode 8 is free on the Fireteam Freelance page, along with all the other episodes so far! As the word count for the series total just passed 170,000, that means Freelance is the equivalent of a free 500 page series. Full of action, explosions, and, well, more action for those who enjoyed Colony and Jungle.

For those of you who have read Colony or Jungle and not Freelance, have read some of Freelance and not Colony or Jungle, or none of them, you should be aware that while in the same setting, Freelance is very much a different genre of Sci-Fi from Colony or Jungle. You know, just so you don’t expect nothing but hard action from Colony or Jungle, or the deeper characterization of Colony and Jungle from Freelance.

Anyway … Enough about that. Let’s get down to things and get some work done, shall we? Let’s talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic. Which most of you have known for a week now, as I mentioned it at the tail end of last week’s post on weaving subplots and plots together.

Yeah, that’s right, we’re still discussing subplots and plot relations. First it was how to lengthen a story out without padding it, then it was weaving those subplots and plots together, and now at last we reach the final bit of this reader requested topic: Keeping it all straight. Or, in other words, methods for making sure things don’t get twisted up, left out, or worst of all, leaving gaping plot holes in your work.

So, let’s dive in and talk about how to keep all your subplots and the main plot straight.

Actually, first let’s talk about why this would be a worry or a topic of concern at all. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. But let’s go back for a moment, back to the post of two weeks previous. That’s right, the first one on subplots where we talked about lengthening without padding.

So one of the main thrusts of that piece was about how a story that wound up too short could be made longer by adding a subplot into it. Excellent stuff, you can go read about it here. But one thing that wasn’t discussed in that post (at least, not in more than a passing mention) was making sure that the plot you added in lined up with the main plot.

Confused? Okay, let’s pull out an example. Say you have a plot wherein your main character faces several challenges, maybe say personal fears. It’s all well and good, and they overcome, but then you realize that it needs to be lengthened. “No problem” says you, and you immediately set about crafting a neat little subplot. You stick it in, the length is reached, and all is well.

Or at least, so you think. Then your Alpha Readers hit it, and very quickly find an issue: You have elements of your subplot that overlap with your main plot! In fact, you have them learning a very similar lesson twice … with no acknowledgement of learning it in the main story when it comes back up at all.

Oops. That’s clearly an issue, though it’d be understandable why it could happen. Both parts were written separately, after all.

Now, this is a minor example, but it’s entirely understandable and does happen from time to time. After all, books can be big, long, and complex. Even a simple 250 page book is around 80,000 words, and there’s a lot of space in there for something to get crossed with something else. To say nothing of a large Epic that fills 600 pages. Or 800. Or spans multiple books.

But thankfully, there are ways to make sure that every book project, from the small to the standard to the large, keeps its plots straight and its subplots out of conflict with the main plot—or better yet, supportive of the main plot.

Again, as we said last week, a subplot that builds a primary plot by interweaving or contributing to it leads to a much better book. So, let’s talk methods that let you achieve this.

First up is a simple one (and in fairness, they’re all like that): Notes.

Yes, you read that properly. Notes. Little hand-written or typed out things. For example, do you know what dots my desk when I’m working on a book project? Lots and lots of notes. On notepad paper. I have, at current count, four different notepads and one thing of sticky notes on my desk, right above my keyboard. There are three sheets note paper keeping track of armaments, locations, and the general flow of the final episode of Fireteam Freelance, for example.

Seriously, if you’re going to do a lot of writing, investing in a good solid set of multiple notepads is a fantastic idea.

Of course, notes don’t need to stop there. There are also electronic sources as well. Though unless you have multiple monitors, it’s better I’ve found to use these for long-term things, like background information you can check against as needed, while notes that will be right in front of your face are better for short-term items and more immediate concerns.

For example, like making sure all your threads for subplots get tied nicely into a main plotline. Vitally important or minor alike. For example, when I was working on Axtara – Banking and Finance, I kept a small piece of paper in front of me with minor details about small things that had happened that I wanted to be sure to reference later in the plot. That way I would constantly look down at it and think “Yes, I’m getting to that, I think it’ll work nicely in this next chapter.”

Again, you can do this with digital files, but it’s a bit trickier to keep them “in front” of you, which is why I personally tend to use digital files for more broad or long-term information, like character bios (I can always copy a quick note) or details about the world background. Because they require effort to load and hunt down information in, it’s much more convenient to (most of the time) use some notes that are right in front of me.

Of course, this is only true for me. Plenty of authors use digital files and either keep multiple windows open, have two screens, or use other methods to check back on their own notes digitally.

In fact, while I’ve not made use of them, there are actually computer programs designed to aid with just that. Though they’re even more complex than a few notes here and there. Programs like Scrivener are “meta-management” programs allowing authors tools like hyperlinking, notes, and a host of other features that allow one to effectively “diagram” their story in real time. You can do things like setup overarching plot diagrams and then color-code chapters to each “section” of a story to help keep everything straight.

Of course, you could do this all on your own with more standard programs like Word or Google Docs, but programs such as Scrivener are built to make it a bit easier. Whether or not you need to purchase one of those programs is up to you: some authors swear by them, while others (like myself) get along just fine with some pens and paper.

Some of you at this point may be thinking “Well, this sounds like extra work.” Those who think that are wrong. This is no less “extra” than the columns of an old Roman building. Sure, maybe one of them could be removed without putting the rest of the structure under too much risk, but on the whole? The columns are there for good reason.

In other words, this isn’t extra work. This is work that is part of the base requirement. Thinking of it as “extra” isn’t correct. It’s part of the work.

Now, even with copious amounts of notes or diagramming (perhaps both) sometimes slip ups can still occur. A subplot can feel disconnected, or not tie in properly. Or an off-hand comment in one can be forgotten in another location. Which, if it does, isn’t a cause for alarm unless it makes it past your pre-readers.

That’s right, if all else fails, Alpha Readers should be able to catch a problem of subplots and plots getting tangled. Howeverthis does not mean you should simply charge ahead without making use of some method of lining them up and just count on Alpha Readers to notice them. Why?

First, just because Alpha Readers can doesn’t mean you should rely on them to. Second, Alpha Readers don’t always catch things. And third, if they do catch these mistakes, and there aren’t any notes or diagrams explaining all the intricacies of the story … how easy will it be to go back and fix?

Not. Very. Imagine being told by a bevvy of Alpha Readers “Hey, this doesn’t tie in well with this plotline” and then trying to go back and figure out how and where to make it work … when you’ve been working on another project for several months?

Yeah … not easy. At all. Take my word on it. Having diagrams and little notes, however, to guide you months later when you’re trying to line up two parts of a plot you didn’t connect well enough? Invaluable to your time and sanity.

So, let’s recap: How do you keep your plots and subplots straight? With work. You take notes, you diagram, you keep track of the important details and bits you want to get into. You can keep track of them in a multitude of ways, but the important detail is the bit about keeping track. Track of important things said, or done, and when they may be relevant later.

Yes, may. You may take notes one things that can come up later and only have five of the six make it. But then you’ll know that the sixth didn’t, and can decide what to do.

So, get out there and make notes. Make diagrams. Use programs. Whatever it takes to keep things as nicely aligned as possible.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, and Thomas! Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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