Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Untangling Subplots (Part III of III)

*****spoilers ahead*****

This post concludes a look at the functions of tiered subplots.  As we move lower down the tiers of subplot types, their functions become less complex, which makes it easy for us to look at tiers 3, 4, and 5 together.  We’ll also continue our examination of subplots in Eleanor and Park, which makes them very easy to understand.

A story could probably exist without 3rd Tier subplots, but it is better for them.  They clearly support the central conflict without any threat of overtaking it.  3rd Tier Subplots may establish allies, set stages, provide vehicle for relationships to occur, or even function as thematic threads.  Eleanor and Park’s friends can be though of as 3rd Tier Subplots.  Park and Eleanor can make their journey without Cal or DeNice and Beebi, but they enhance the story.  Cal’s crush on Kim provides a helpful contrast to the main romance, one which helps Park develop his true values about love.  DeNice and Beebi show Eleanor is a really nice girl.  So while Cal is kind of a negative example of how to conduct yourself romantically in high school, DeNice and Beebi support Eleanor in her struggle for real love.  Also, consider the comic books and music 3rd Tier Subplots.  The X-men and Park’s mix tapes give Park and Eleanor a way to come together –they provide vehicles for the relationship, itself.  Another type of 3rd Tier Subplot may be the thematic thread.  In E & P, Rowell paints these in with brushstrokes that are vivid but never heavy-handed.  This is why at the end of the book we realize we have also been reading about ethnicity and poverty, or more broadly –isolation.  It is my observation that the read may see 3rd Tier Subplots arc gently in three to seven scenes throughout the story.  They may be dispersed liberally throughout the early parts of the novel, but taper off as more subplots more tightly tied to the central conflict take over in Part III of the Hero’s Journey.

4th Tier Subplots repeat occasionally.  They can be used to provide a reality check, show character growth, reveal important knowledge, or add to setting, mood, or theme.  In E & P, these might be the classroom and counselor scenes.  They provide a stage for events to unfold.  Consider the honors student who chides Park in class.  She makes actual appearance in scenes, but demonstrates no real arc of change.  She is merely a reality check.  These scenes may be distributed occasionally throughout any section of the story as needed.

5th Tier Subplots include people who are mentioned by name one or two times.  They are named so more than anonymous, but they exist merely to populate the character’s world, to give a sense of the community of people around the character.  In E & P these 5th Tier Subplots include mention of Mikey, Junior, Eric, and Tina’s sidekick, Anette.

 Fantastic fan art by Simini Blocker!

When you’re working of the manuscript of something as big as a novel, it is hard to hold everything in your head at the same time.  Seeing subplots as tiered with unique functions helped me not only to understand their role in supporting the main conflict, but also to chart them as I revised, making sure I developed each and pulled its thread all the way through the story.  Thank you, Rainbow, for providing such a well-structured novel that I could finally see how this all worked.  In an effort to summarize the information from these last three posts in a useful way so you can think about your own manuscript and subplots, I put together this chart.  Hope it helps!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Untangling Subplots (Part II of III)

*****spoilers ahead*****

This post we continue to look at the idea of tiered subplots, their major distinctions, functions, modes of arcing, and prominence in different parts of the story.  While 1st Tier subplots are very caught up in the story’s central conflict, 2nd Tier Subplots play a different role.

In my eyes, a 2nd Tier Subplot is often what I think of as a complication plot.  In Eleanor and Park, think Tina.  Where otherwise things might work out easily for Park and Eleanor, there is Tina.  She plays Eleanor’s bully, initially.  Her backstory, a former relationship with Park, gives him a socially successful reputation to overcome.  Dealing with Tina actually ends up bringing Eleanor and Park closer, and in the end Tina helps shepherd them to safety when on the run from Ritchie.  So a 2nd Tier Plot often provides a challenge and an opportunity to grow for the main character(s).

So this 2nd Tier Plot can be a catalyst for a protagonist’s arcing journey, helping him to see things in a new way.  It is because of Tina that Park is forced to face his own biases about popularity and choose what counts more for him –reputation or true passion.  Sometimes the supporting character involved also shows a small arc of change.  Though not developed nearly to the degree of the parental relationships discussed in my last post, Tina does change from a two-dimensional bully who sticks sanitary pads on Eleanor’s gym locker to someone who can show sympathy, someone who even has issues of her own when it comes to growing up, friendship, survival, and romance.  My observation has been, though a 2nd Tier plot may be planted early with occasional reminders, it rears its head in Part III of the Hero’s Journey.  So though we meet Tina on the bus in Chapter 1, her story comes between Park and Eleanor in Part III just as things get serious for him with Eleanor.

Stay tuned next post for 3rd, 4th, and 5th Tier Subplots and a subplot-summarizing chart!

Great fan art by Simini Blocker!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Untangling Subplots (Part I of III)

Subplots worried me.  The whole time I was revising my manuscript, I was thinking, “I really do not have a handle on what is going on with these subplots.”  They were just running around my manuscript like unsupervised children.  Then I read Eleanor and Park, and I realized this was the book for studying subplots!  So I reread, took notes on what subplots I found, and made a diagram of where the different subplots appeared in a loosely interpreted hero’s journey.  What I found out helped me get a grip on how the subplots functioned to help the story.  With that understanding I felt like I could better guide the subplots in my own story.  Thank you, Rainbow!

The big discovery?  There are tiers of subplots.  Over the course of my next few posts let me tell you about the five tiers I found, how they work, and give you a picture of how they functioned in Eleanor and Park.

1st Tier Subplots
*****spoilers ahead*****

The main struggle in the story could not exist without what I’ll call 1st Tier Subplots.  1st Tier Subplots are very wrapped up in the story’s central conflict.  Eleanor & Park begins and ends with Park, and Park’s central conflict is that though he wants to keep his head down, he’s in love with Eleanor (which makes a low profile a little impossible).  An example of a 1st Tier Subplot, then, is Park’s relationship with his parents.  Eleanor’s relationship with her parents is also a 1st Tier Subplot.  These subplots are necessary for the main struggle to happen, for the main character to reach his/her full arc.  For example, Eleanor’s family situation is necessary for Park to have a moment where he doesn’t care what even his family thinks.  1st Tier Subplots do not overtake the main conflict because readers don’t feel these subplots for their own sake, but always through the main character’s viewpoint, struggle, and personal needs.  Eleanor’s relationship with her family is dire, but we feel the loss of Eleanor to her family always through Park, so this subplot does not outshine his central conflict.  In fact these 1st Tier Subplots often become the actual grounds for the main character’s ordeal & climax.  It is in large part because of Eleanor’s family situation that Park kicks Steve for teasing Eleanor.  Similarly, without Eleanor’s family Park would have no opportunity to help her escape.

1st Tier Subplots may function in a variety of ways.  The may be two, equal, opposing forces that build up and tear down the main character’s struggle.  Think of Park’s relationship with his parents, who help the young couple find their way, versus Eleanor’s relationship with her parents, whose very way of life continues to threaten any hope of Eleanor and Park staying together.  These subplots may echo the main struggle in different variations (ie. a similar struggle that fails, etc.).  They often contain mentors (Park’s dad), allies (Park’s mom), gatekeepers (Richie), etc. 

In 1st Tier Subplots, full arcs develop for supporting characters.  Park’s relationship with his parents develops deeply.  He comes to see his parents as an example of a romantic relationship that can survive, and his parents come to a full acceptance of who Park wants to be as an individual.  It is possible, readers may not see all the events in this arc occur in scenes; some may be summarized.  As intensity mounts in Part III of the Hero’s Journey (as the hero moves from ordeal to climax), focus goes to higher tier subplots like these, and more time is spent on them.

Enjoy this great fan art by Simini Blocker !

Thursday, April 10, 2014

No Wasted Space

Sometimes I read a novel by an author who is a MASTER at plot.  That’s what happened when I read Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.  In a PublishersWeekly article Rachel says that initially “several agents told her the equivalent of ‘You write beautifully.  If you ever figure out what a plot is, call me.’  Then she “rewrote the novel three times, with a new plot each time.”  I would sacrifice half my library to get a peek at those plot outlines!  So many writers struggle to master plot, myself included, that I desperately want to see the evolution of what she learned over those three new drafts!  But alas, right?  So I did what I always do:

I plotted out what Hartman did myself.  I took a look at her chapters in terms of Vogler’s hero’s journey because it seemed very appropriate to the heroine, Seraphina.  Pieces of the puzzle and where they were placed started making sense to me.  I even tried articulating what I saw as the main conflict.  I knew after I read Seraphina, there is no wasted plot time.  But plotting it out myself have me a much better feel for HOW Hartman did it.  (Ms. Hartman, half my library is still on the table if you ever want to show me your own plot outlines!)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Attraction in Seraphina

According to a PublishersWeekly article, author of the Morris Award-winning debut, Seraphina, Rachel Hartman admits she’s a slow writer.  Hartman says, “It’s a feature, not a defect.”  And thank goodness for that feature.  One of the delicious results is the intense attraction between protagonist, Seraphina, and Prince Lucian.  The attraction was, and a year later still is, so palpable, I took a close look at Chapter Two where Lucian makes his appearance on the bridge, Chapter Seven a formal court scene, and Chapter Eleven a second intimate conversation scene, to see how Hartman achieved the magnetism between the two.  The result: seven ways Hartman developed the pull between these two.

First, Seraphina and Lucian seem to recognize each other immediately.  In Seraphina’s first glimpse of Lucian, she recognizes the emotions on his face, “sorrow replaced by a spectacular annoyance.”  She is able to discern what is a mask of calm on him, while with ease he answers her unasked question.

Hartman also intersperses bits of Lucian’s reputation.  He is a shrewd and dogged investigator who works all the time.  He is not as outgoing or as handsome as his late uncle, which somehow makes us like the bastard prince very much.  Though he has no beard, to Seraphina’s dismay, “the intelligence of his gaze more than made up for that.”  Having a secret to hide, she also sees Lucian is “too sharp for her comfort”.  For his part, though Lucian has only seen Seraphina across the court, he knows her name, and he has concluded she must be “astonishing”.

Seraphina is acutely aware of other’s reactions to Lucian.  She observes they part like waves for him, and she sees his soldiers respond swiftly to his signals.  These observations create feelings of attraction in the reader because we are looking through Seraphina’s eyes, because she notices so much about Lucian, and because we admire the respect Lucian commands.

When Lucian approaches on the bridge, Seraphina’s first instinct is to tug Orma’s sleeve and say, “Let’s go.”  Somehow her desire to flee makes us keenly aware of the pull she feels in the opposite direction.  This hunch is fulfilled when, toward the end of Chapter Two, Seraphina permits herself, “one small pang for the inevitability of his disdain”.  Like a perfectly set gemstone, this one permission reveals the strength of her true feelings.

Seraphina notices choice details about Lucian.  She notices his unconscious tics like the rapid tapping of his left boot during at uncomfortable conversation at court or the way he rubs a hand down his face while trying to deescalate a situation on the bridge.  She also notices the poeticism of the man’s grander gestures from a distance: “The last rays of the setting sun turned his mourning clothes almost golden.  He commandeered a horse from one of his sergeants, leaped up with balletic grace, and directed the corps back into formation.”  Sigh.

Lucian assumes a great deal of intimacy with Seraphina.  He leans in to talk to her.  He compliments her.  He creates the sense of a close, private, and special conversation with her.  In small comments like, “Here we go,” though he exhibits frustration his “we” signals his sense they are in this together.  He flashes Seraphina a “grateful glance” when she interjects a blessing on his mother into his argument with Eskar.  After the argument as Seraphina troubleshoots her headache, Lucian speaks to her, “his voice so close and sudden” that she startled.

Perhaps most alluring of all to the intelligent Seraphina and her readers, Lucian is always presented with a mix of emotions.  He is shocked and stricken.  He displays spectacular annoyance but draws his brows in concern.  He expresses both pity and disgust.  His snapping is followed up with a more gentle tone.  He wears a calm mask, but also we see his clenched teeth, his windblown hair, and his mad ferocity peer out.  He even smiles grimly.

What is perhaps most amazing is not that Hartman coaxes out all this attraction, but that she weaves it all intricately throughout an action packed chapter with other, larger purposes.  As a reader, even a year later, I still swoon when I think of the attraction between Seraphina and Lucian.  Considering only three scenes, one in which they’ve just met, one formal occasion which does not allow them much contact, and a second more intimate conversation, I am tangled up in them.  Overall, their intimacy seems to come from their recognition of each other despite the societal roles, and secrets, that must keep them apart.  So their attraction is bound in tension.  The contrast between the two conversation scenes and the more public court scene only serves to heighten that tension.  So, thank you, Rachel Hartman!  May your sequel revisions unfold un-rushed.  May you allow yourself all the time you need to work these beautiful subtleties into the seams of your story!