Saturday, August 8, 2009

How to Improve Your Writing - Constructing Main Plots and Sub Plots

By Merrill Heath

Have you ever considered how the plots were constructed in your favorite novels? Do you look for formulas or plot structure in the novels you read? If you're a writer, do you diagram your plots so you know when to focus on the main plot (MP), character development (CD), or your subplots (SP1, SP2)?

I think most authors say they don't use a formula or plan their plots out in too much detail. They say things like "It's too restrictive, limits creativity, even takes the fun out of writing. If it becomes overly structured it's too much like writing a term paper or a book report instead of a novel."

Well, this may or may not be true. That probably depends on the writer's personality, experience, talent, and so forth. One thing is for sure - the authors who churn out one novel after another have a structure they follow. It may be subconscious, but it's there nonetheless. You can prove this by diagramming a couple of their novels. They follow a pattern that moves from main plot to subplots, back and forth, in such a way that you don't get lost or forget what's going on. As I said, the really experienced writers just kind of know to do this and don't need to keep the structure in mind. But the beginner or novice generally needs help keeping everything running smoothly. The good news is that it's really easy to do and can even help you avoid getting blocked. Let's look at some numbers to illustrate the point.

By industry standards, a novel is 50,000 words or more. The word count varies tremendously but most popular fiction runs about 250 pages in print. That computes to roughly a 300 page manuscript. With an average word count of 250 per page in manuscript format this computes to 75,000 words. Obviously, these are rough estimates since these numbers can greatly vary depending on the amount of dialogue, descriptive content, paragraph length, etc. But these are good averages to work with. Plus, the math is easy.

Within all those words the writer has to develop his characters, throw them into some kind of situation or plot, and add some additional material which will be one or more subplots. A good rule of thumb for allocation is 65-25-10. 65% devoted to the main plot (MP). 25% devoted to subplot one (SP1). 10% devoted to subplot two (SP2). If we continue with our math this breaks down to 48,750 words (195 pages) devoted to MP; 18,750 words (75 pages) for SP1; and 7,500 words (30 pages) for SP2. Character development occurs throughout and is generally not included as a separate word/page count.

The key is to concentrate on MP while weaving SP1 and SP2 into the storyline without getting too sidetracked. You don't want to be away from any of your plots so long that the reader forgets what's going on. In creating the structure you can actually map it out, chapter by chapter. You want to loop back to your SPs every four or five chapters, depending on how long your chapters are. This not only gives you some direction on what you need to be working on next, it also helps you keep the action connected.

One more point about structure. You can work on each plot separately if that works for you. Then you simply go back and weave them all together. This is a great option if you find yourself with writer's block. If you're bogged down with MP, write for a few days on SP1 or SP2. This also helps you come up with twists and turns and foreshadowing and hooks that will keep your reader turning pages.

The next time you read a novel, or watch a movie for that matter, look for the MP and SPs. The MP will be the major conflict that drives the story. One SP will deal with a relationship, usually romantic, in which the main character is involved. The other SP will be a device for character development, typically it involves a little humor and levity, and may not be directly tied into the MP. It will be very evident if you look for it.

Merrill Heath is an author who has a strong desire to "pay it forward" by helping other authors improve their craft. For mor information on his novels and current projects visit his blog at:

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