In Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1, Let it Cook, we talked about why you need to let your novel simmer a bit. In Part 2, Plot Structure, we talked about the main story structure (plot), and I gave you a nifty chart to help you outline. To continue structural editing, you’ll need to check your subplot and digressions.
The subplot, also called subtext, is a secondary story woven into the main story, involving non-main characters. You may have one subplot or a few. That’s up to you. As you review your manuscript, ask yourself the following questions about your subplot.
1. What is the purpose of your subplot? How does it enhance the main story? Subplots can be used to break the tension and give your readers a chance to catch their breaths. Subplots can also present opportunities to reveal more about your main characters, and fill out their personalities. Or they can give your protagonist more challenges, piling on the obstacles from various sources. Don’t just toss in another story. The subplot has to relate to and enhance the main plot.
2. Does your subplot overpower your main plot? Subplots should have less emotional energy and less words than your main plot, or your structure weakens. They can’t have equal time. That is not to say that you shouldn’t make your subplot a good story. Of course, you should. Think of subplots as the bridesmaids at a wedding. Dress them up and put them in their places, but the party is not about them. Keep your focus on the bride and groom.
3. Does each subplot have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Subplots aren’t as intricate as the main plot, but they should be full stories. Don’t ever leave your subplots without resolution. Readers hate that.
Digressions are bits of information–real or fictional–added to the story that are not actually part of the story. Unless your writing style employs stream of consciousness (think of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), stick to the following rules for digression.
1. Use digressions sparingly. Digressions can jar the reader out of the story, so be careful about using them.
2. Keep digressions super brief. Digressions are, by definition, not part of the story. So if you write one in, keep it to literally just a few words or a sentence. You don’t want to go off on a rabbit trail and lose focus. That will frustrate your readers–if they keep reading at all.
3. Use digression to enhance your story. If you’re writing a story that takes place in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for example, you might mention that Elizabethtown is only ten miles from Hodgenville, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. It’s an interesting tidbit that is outside of the story, but it may help the reader to envision your story’s setting.
4. Give digression to a character’s dialogue. If you want to share a lot of seemingly unrelated facts (whether real or fictional), consider giving them to one of your characters as dialogue. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android Data often states seemingly random facts, or explains the science or pseudo-science driving the storyline. Because digressions are part of Data’s character, the writers slip them in without straying from the story line, and the viewer is not distracted. But notice that even Data keeps digressions brief.
5. Use digression to drop clues or foreshadowing. Drop in seemingly unimportant information that will come into play later in the story.
6. Use digression for misdirection. Like a magician uses a beautiful assistant to distract his audience from his secrets, mystery writers use misdirection in their novels. A little digression here and there throws your reader off the scent, so the mystery isn’t too easy to solve. This use of misdirection must follow logic, though. Don’t just plunk in something totally unrelated out of nowhere and for no reason. See 5 Ways to Create Red Herrings in a Mystery Novel on Global Mysteries for more on misdirection.
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UPDATE: This contest is closed. Winner has been notified.