This piece, by Janice Hardy, originally appeared on her The Other Side of the Story blog on 4/15/09.
We spend a lot of time focusing on our core conflict, and rightly so since that’s what driving our novels. But what about the subplots? Those pesky side stories that either deepen our novels or side track them to dark alleys and bang them over the head.
With my first novel, the subplots ruled. Every time I got a cool idea for a character, no matter how important they were, I ran with it. That’s probably why I had eleven POVs and couldn’t tell you what the dang book was about.
The next novel, I kept a tight leash on the subplots. The book was pretty flat, because nothing beyond the main story ever happened to shake things up.
Finally, I found a balance that worked for me. Core external conflict, core internal conflict, handful of subplots.
But there’s a catch…
They all have to be connected.
The core conflict is the bulk of my story. Protag needs X, and will do anything to get X. But constantly reading about, oh lets make up something… Bob being chased by zombies … is pretty boring after a while. We all know how stories go. We know that Bob is going to be thwarted by zombies at every turn until the end of the book, where he’ll pull something out of his, um, hat and save the day. (or get eaten if that’s the kind of story you’re writing).
Bob’s core conflict: Zombies are trying to eat him and everyone around him.
His goal: To survive and kill off the zombies.
We need subplots to spice this up so it isn’t as predictable what will happen. I could give Bob another threat to deal with, say crazed renegade bikers taking advantage of the chaos, who are also trying to kill him. But really, two "trying to kill you" threats are basically the same thing. The stakes are still the same, and the story is still going to follow the same path as with the zombies. There’s nothing new to offer the reader in terms of a problem to overcome.
What I need to do, is give Bob a problem that has totally different stakes than getting eaten. He has to risk something else that matters to him. End of the world stories need a little romance, so let’s give him Jane.
Jane is the love if his life, but he’s been afraid to tell her that. They’re running from zombies together, and he’s working up the courage to profess his love for her. He has something beyond himself at stake now, and bad things could happen to either. Worrying about Jane is an additional worry for Bob. But what might happen to Bob can easily still happen to Jane, so the stakes are only marginally raised. We need a different threat. A personal threat, since the other threats are all impersonal.