Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dear Quillers #1 - Plots and Sub-Plots

Apologies for taking so long to get around to starting the Dear Quillers column. I’ve spent the last few weeks chasing my own tail. Sadly one of our westies was taken ill and died, which, any pet lover will know, is just as painful as losing any member of the family.

I also had a birthday bash on Facebook which went very well. I’ve been for physiotherapy for my Achilles Tendonitis and have to go back in 3 weeks to see how the exercises are going and then to sort out my shoulder.

But now onto Dear Quillers. If you remember, Sue Barnard won my first competition on the blog, with her question:

Books cannot live by romance alone - so what advice can you offer for helping to construct a convincing and compelling sub-plot?

Some romance publishers don’t want any sub-plot and do indeed live by romance alone. Mills and Boon novels are wonderfully constructed to deal with just the emotions and conflict between the hero and heroine.

The Romantic Novelists Association Awards are structured so that novels with a predominant romance plot score higher, whereas those with a larger sub-plot (or plots) tend to score lower. So the important thing to remember is that you are writing a romance, first and foremost, and if writing for a particular market to give them what they want.

As I said in a previous post, I’ve always found it difficult to write a ‘straight’ romance. Whenever I got bored with my story or characters I threw in a dead body. It took me a while to balance things so that I had a romance and a sub-plot that tied together cohesively.

Any plot in a romantic novel has to have some bearing on the main romance. The characters must have a vested interest in the outcome of any sub plot, whether it be crime, intrigue, or as in the case of Sue’s novel, The Ghostly Father, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, a family feud. You need to ensure that these different ‘plates’ are kept spinning throughout your novel.

And Romeo and Juliet are a very good example of how to balance the different plots and sub-plots. In the story we have several plots.

Plot 1: The main romance between Romeo and Juliet

Plot 2: The feud between the Montague’s and Capulets (this is introduced first in the play, to add greater meaning to the fact that Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight).

Plot 3: How this feud affects the younger members of the families, thus leading to Mercutio and Tybalt’s death, and Romeo’s exile, taking him away from Juliet.

Plot 4: Friar Laurence’s own plot to try and bring the family together.

Plot 4: The plot for Juliet to feign death, which backfires horribly.

I’m sure I’ve missed something out there, but look at how everything comes back to Romeo and Juliet. The family stops them begin together. The death of Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, leads to him killing Tybalt, which then means he’s exiled from Verona, taking him away from his beloved Juliet. Juliet’s plot with the Friar to fake her death, brings Romeo back to Verona and … well, you know the rest.

A simpler and more up to date example is one that I often use and that’s the film Die Hard. No, it’s not a romance, but it has romance in it, in the form of John McClane’s relationship with his estranged wife, Holly. When he tries to stop the terrorists, he’s not just doing it for all the other innocent hostages. He’s doing it because the woman he loves is in danger – hence ‘vested interest’.

How do you construct a convincing and compelling sub-plot in a romantic novel? The main thing is to ensure it always has a bearing on the romance. If you find yourself spending too long dealing with plots that has nothing to do with the hero and heroine, and which does not affect them directly – or indirectly – then ask yourself what you need to do to bring the story back to them.

Even if, as in many Regency Romances, you have a secondary love affair, it still needs to have some bearing on the main romance. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the secondary romance is between Jane Bennett and Mr Bingley.  One of the reasons Lizzie Bennett turns Darcy down is because he is the one who persuaded Bingley that Jane Bennett did not really care for him. She is dismayed by Darcy’s prejudice towards her elder sister.

Later, the less savoury romance between Lydia and Wickham also affects the budding romance between Lizzie and Darcy. Or at least Lizzie believes it does, thinking that Darcy will want nothing to do with her now her younger sister has behaved so outrageously. This time she doesn’t blame him either, because she too is horrified by Lydia’s behaviour. This turns out to be a last minute ‘black moment’ and all is well, but it still gives Lizzie cause for concern, and also allows Darcy to show his more heroic side when he ensures that Wickham marries Lydia. (Though given that Lydia was only fifteen, I tend to sympathise with her more and think her mother should have taken better care of her!)

To build up your compelling sub-plot, look at every part of your story and ask the following questions:

Is this sub-plot relevant to the hero and heroine?

The answer should be yes.

Will it add to the conflict between them?

Again, this should be yes, even if it's a red herring, as with Lizzie believing Darcy won't want anything to do with her because of Lydia.

Would it leave a big hole in the romantic part of the story, if you removed the sub-plot?

Again the answer should be yes. If the answer  is ‘no’ you need to ask why you’ve included that particular sub-plot. That doesn’t mean you have to take it out of the story, but think about how you can make it affect the hero and heroine. If it’s a secret, will the revelation destroy their romance? And if it does, how can you find a remedy to ensure it all works out  in the end. 

One thing to beware, as I discussed in my blog post about combining love and death in romantic intrigue, is that you don’t overload your story with plots and sub-plots.

If the heroine is falling in love; hoping that the hero doesn’t realise that her two year old twins are his; saving her kidnapped brother from the mafia; sorting out her work problems with her despised boss; finding the cure for the common cold/cancer/acne and trying to become a pop-star at the weekends, it’s just possible that you’ve overdone it.

Keep it fairly simple. If it is as complicated as stated above – bearing in mind I am the mistress of twisty turny plots – then by the end of the story all those threads have to be tied up satisfactorily.  And as far as I know, Miley Cyrus isn’t anywhere near to curing the common cold…(Slacker!)



  1. I have a somewhat opposite challenge. My work is not primarily romance, but plot-driven fiction; mainly thrillers, SF, crime, or mixtures thereof. What I want to do is add some much needed romance into the mix, as an engaging sub-plot in most cases.

    Does anybody reading this have tips for how to go about it?

  2. I think the same applies in reverse, Captain. The romance will still need to be driven somewhat by the plot and vice versa. Otherwise you end up with a thing they call on TV Tropes, 'Strangled by the Red String'. This is when a couple come together in a story for no other reason than the author had decided they will.

    So ask yourself how this romance will fit into the bigger picture? What part of the main plot will bring your lovers together to advance their relationship? Are they stuck on the holodeck together and can't get off? Are they both kidnapped by the bad guy/girl?

    I think Die Hard is another good example of this, because the romance is the secondary story, but it's still an integral part of the story. If John McClane hadn't been visiting his estranged wife, then he would not have been in the building when the terrorists took over and whilst he would still have tried to save everyone, the stakes for both him and the viewer, would not have been as high. Because we care about him and Holly, we want things to work out for them and for him to save her.

    I hope that helps. I've just rattled it off, but it's worth doing a post on it in future, if you're happy for me to use your question.

  3. Thanks, Sally. I will try to avoid the dreaded red string. By all means use my question.


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