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 !

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