HOW MANY SUBPLOTS IS TOO MANY?
Novels swimming in subplots can feel diffuse. Two or three major subplots are about all that even the long-
est quest fantasies can contain. With more than three subplots, it becomes difficult to sustain reader involvement. Focus is too shattered. Sympathy is torn in too many directions.
Readers of overcrowded novels frequently complain, “It was hard to keep the characters straight.” That is often due to the author’s failure to maintain strong character delineation. Great saga writers have a gift for creating large and varied casts, but it is a rare author who can make more than 20 characters highly individual and distinct. In truth, only giant sagas need that many characters. Novels begin to take on breakout expansiveness with little more than two points of view and as few as one or, possibly, two subplots.
Proof of this can be found in some of our era’s greatest sagas. James Clavell’s 1975 blockbuster Shōgun is a doorstop of a novel, almost 1,200 pages in paperback. It is a massive and immensely detailed journey through feudal Japan. Scores of characters appear, many of them with points of view. For all its heft, though, there are really only two principal points of view: John Blackthorne, the shipwrecked English pilot-major who saves the life of powerful daimyo Toranaga, and the beautiful and courageous married woman with whom Blackthorne falls in love, Mariko. Even so, most of the book belongs to Blackthorne.
Similarly, Larry McMurtry’s 1985 sprawling cattle-drive of a novel, Lonesome Dove, tells dozens of colorful tales—of cowboys, prostitutes, swindlers and such—but without a doubt the novel’s primary focus is cattleman Augustus McCrae. James Jones’ gigantic 1951 epic of World War II, From Here to Eternity, is built around just two men, Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt and 1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden; this in a novel that fills 860 pages in its current trade paperback edition.
What these master storytellers know is that a large-scale story is nevertheless still just a story. Overcomplicate it and you lose the essential simplicity of narrative art. Readers identify primarily with one strong, sympathetic central character; it is that character’s destiny about which they most care. Have you ever skimmed ahead in a novel to find the next scene involving your favorite character? Then you know what I mean. Enrich your novel with multiple viewpoints, but keep subplots to a minimum.
The subplots you do include should absolutely amplify themes running through the main plotline. They should be supportive, not wholly separate. How can you be sure the subplots in your novel are doing their jobs? Here is where your purpose in writing your novel needs to be clear in your mind. Most authors launch into their manuscripts without giving any thought to theme. Breakout novelists, on the other hand, generally are writing for a reason. They have something to say. You cannot fully grasp the relationship of your subplots to your main plot until you know what they are really all about.
If you do not know—if, say, you are an organic writer—then perhaps it is best not to plan subplots but simply allow multiple points of view into your story, then see which points of view grow into subplots. (In fact, it is not uncommon for organic writers to find that a minor story line has mushroomed out of control and has become their novel’s main plot.)
Finally, it is worth repeating that not all novels need subplots. There are, for instance, a great many point-of-view characters in John Grisham’s The Partner. Yet out of perhaps a dozen major points of view, no character other than Patrick Lanigan has a truly separate story line. The entire novel is built around the desperation of this runaway lawyer with $90 million in stolen money. Everyone else in the novel either supports him or tries to tear him down.
The Partner feels like it is elaborately plotted, but in reality its structure is simple: It is about a man digging himself out of the worst imaginable trouble. To be sure, there are endless complications, but The Partner has no true subplots.
It is perfectly possible to write a breakout novel from the protagonist’s perspective alone. So how do you know whether to include a particular subplot or let it drop? The answer lies in a subplot’s contribution to the overall novel. Is it mere diversion, as in the oft-attempted-but-rarely- successful “comic relief” subplot? If so, it should be cut.
On the other hand, if it complicates, bears upon, or mirrors or reverses the main plot, then it adds value.
None of the techniques I am talking about are easy. Adding subplots multiplies the work involved in writing a novel. But it can also multiply the rewards, both for the reader and the writer. Think big. It pays off in many ways.