On Writing Subplots, Minor Characters And Feeding Kitty Cats. Or…Ways To Weave It All Together In Your Novel

Welcome to post #101! Can you believe it? Had I realized that before now, I’d have made sure to finish one of the twenty drafts I have on hand.  But I didn’t so this is a revised yet recycled post from an old blog. At least I didn’t recycle the mommy blog posts and at least I’m environmentally friendly. Right? 🙂

A few summers ago we found a mother cat and three kittens on the patio in front of our house.  One of the dogs discovered them when she decided to jump up on back legs to look outside through the dining room window because she was finished looking out the other seven thousand windows in the house.  Of course it was the middle of the night and of course I was awake from then on, as she/we watched the kittens play in the dark amidst the withering flowers and plants succumbing to the fact that I stopped watering the week before (I’m a May-June gardener — after that, it’s too dang hot).  The next day dog #2 and mama cat had a staring match through the window.  I then decided those tiny, wobbly kittens must be hungry and although feeding them would endear me to them for life, I was sure, I used my favorite plastic platter and spread a can of tuna near the rim so the kittens could reach it easily.  That would have been great if the mama cat would have then let them have any.  Which she did not.  When I saw the tiny kitties licking an empty plate, well, what was I supposed to do?  More tuna.  More plates.  I pushed the plates to the two spots where the kittens were hiding and then when I hid, they ate the tuna.

Later that day I rigged the dining room curtain so dog #2 could not wiggle through where the two sides meet. I left the outside lights off so the cats would be harder to see.

Good story, right? I wish. But POOF — the cat and kittens were gone.  I thought mama cat would come back.  My daughter and I decided on a place to feed them where the dog wouldn’t see them.  I researched feral cats and called the local humane society.  Heck, we even named all four of them.  There was no way I was taking in four cats but we decided if one came back — well then our hand might be forced.  No need for all the planning.  The cats were gone for good.  Gone, yes. But not forgotten.

You know, like a dropped subplot.

Dropped characters who have no graceful or dramatic exits and dropped subplots with no imaginable or actual ending are probably my biggest pet peeve in reading and writing.  Everything in literature needn’t be tied up neatly with a bow, but I think there should be a reasonable explanation or an understanding of a character’s departure.  If there’s a subplot we don’t need to read “the end” but we do need to know (or think we know) where something is headed.

A writer friend of my uses spreadsheets to do this.  I’m not quite as organized.  OK, I am no way nearly as organized.  I have scribblings on paper that say “Don’t forget about so-and-so” which is the writerly string on my finger.  Throughout my novel and works in progress I tried to weave different storylines that have beginnings, middles and endings that do not coincide with the beginning, middle and end of the novel.  Some of those secondary endings leave the reason without question and some point to possibilities and allow the reader to surmise, wonder and think.  I relied on my betas  to help discover nuances missed and threads that have detangled.  Since I know what happens in my stories, what doesn’t happen — I’m often too close to it all (shout-out to betas – you know who you are).

With more recent experience I’ve come to realize that if I know that each character has a purpose other than simply to support another character, it’s much easier to imagine a story for that character. It needn’t all be in the book, but if I know it all I can have that character’s arc complete, no matter how short or shallow. Does every character need a full story? No. But if you’ve woven a subplot into the book in Chapter 1 and don’t mention it again, oh, til the middle of the book, I’m just going to itch.  If supposedly vital relationships show up now and again, it makes me twitch.  In real life we may be able to pick up the phone after six months to talk with a friend and it’s like no time has passed, but a reader has only 300-500 pages (typically) to get into the world of your characters, to belt themselves in for the ride.  I know now that for the stories I like to read – and write – weaving is the perfect metaphor.  Sometimes you see the threads, sometimes you don’t, but they are always there ready to poke back out and make themselves know, add to the colorful schema, the artwork, the tapestry — you know — the plot.

I have shelved authors who drop subplots.  It disappointments me so much that I don’t read them again.  No second chances with me – there’s too much out there to read.

I can only imagine it was that way with the cats.  A big wide world to explore and without the lure of more than a can of tuna (it was albacore!) they were not sticking around for more. And just like a book with elusive subplots – I kept hoping they’d come back so I could learn the rest of their story.

How do you keep track of threads and subplots in your writing? Is it scientific? Secret? Simple? Do tell! Have you dropped a character or subplot and gone back to fix it?

8 thoughts on “On Writing Subplots, Minor Characters And Feeding Kitty Cats. Or…Ways To Weave It All Together In Your Novel

  1. I started a subplot in the book I’m working on only to now realize it’s not necessary for the story. He’s an important character but the subplot, which involved his family members and his past is insignificant. So when I’m done with the draft, which will be soon, I’ll just go back and cut out those few parts I alluded to earlier. If it would have worked, them great, but I don’t need it. Still, it was nice to have there on case I had to add to the story. I love when you’re working on a subplot and a piece of the puzzle clicks and the whole story meshes together perfectly in a surprising way! Those are fun writing moments!

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  2. That’s one of my pet peeves, too, and I would be in the midst of complete ARGHHH NOOOOOO if I ever did that! Which is why I never name a secondary character unless I am going to follow through. So if there is a mailman or a clerk in a store or passerby or barista or chef or whatever the case may be – if they are not in some way important or interactive with the story where I will follow through witih them, they remain un-named and thus “unimportant” — once they have a name, they become “Mine” and the “Readers” and the “story’s.”

    I just watched Benjamin Button, and while I thought it well done (if a little too sad and the ending didn’t hold much hope, and I hate that – when I devote 2 hours to a movie and there is no hope at the end . . .only that sadness . . . dang) anyway — I felt a character, the daughter, was just kind of dropped at the end and that made me go UNNNGH! Still, good movie!

    By the way – my mom was just going to help a couple of hurt feral cats – now she’s the “cat lady” they just kept coming – she’s spent thousands of dollars trying to help these cats – trapping and having them fixed, trying to find them homes, fixing them up when they are sick or hurt. She said she wishes she’d never have started with the first one(s) *lawd!* 😀

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  3. Wow, I love this post so much! I absolutely hate it when subplots are dropped. Or inadequately resolved. One of my biggest pet peeves; one that I’m working so hard to avoid in the WIP I’m editing. I’m somewhere between the spreadsheet and the scribblings (ok, more toward the scribblings especially now I’m near the end of revisions), but the thing is now that I’ve gotten to know everyone in my book a little too well, I can’t imagine I’d drop the ball on anyone. We’ll see.. SUCH a great post, Amy! (and p.s. “because she was finished looking out the other seven thousand windows in the house” is one of the best descriptions of a dog I’ve ever read!)

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  4. Great post. I’m a spreadsheet girl (I’m a likin’ my spreadsheets) but you can get lost in all that detail. 🙂 This is making me run over the different threads – thanks for the nudge!

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  5. Wonderful post, Amy!

    I am at this very minute grappling with this issue with one of my character groupings in my next novel. Since it is a story set over a relatively short period (5 days) I think it’s natural that there will be a lack of resolution in some things (talk about TOO tidy, right?) BUT, that said, there is a difference between lack of resolution and just dropped-like-a-hot-potato. So I’m trying to reconcile that in a satisfying way…

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  6. Amy,

    I’m new to your blog and I love it! You and your ladies have given me so much to think about!

    My friends are great at finding untidy loose ends in my writing. They enjoy reading my novels and adding tidbits and ideas, but one particular friend often says “I kept expecting so and so to resurface”. I’m always shocked when I realize that I let the character slide. I guess I’d wrapped it up in my head and was done! I have found it also helps to combine minor characters. I need a character to move the storey line along, but I’ve found I can weave several minor characters into a more interesting and finished ”person” leaving me less to wrap up.

    Thanks for being so supportive and fun!

    Kirsten

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