Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Plots, Subplots and Nonplots

Davin's post of yesterday, about tying up all the subplots in a longer work, got me thinking about the novel I'm currently writing. Tara Maya has thoughtfully supplied the term philosophical detective story to partially describe what I'm doing, and I'm going to use it from now on, any time I talk about the book. Anyway, I'm writing a philosophical detective story that has some odd things going on in the way of structure. I've created a little diagram for you:

The big arrow pointing from left-to-right is the main plot, the through-action of the detective story and that's all very straightforward (as detective stories go). It serves as the 12-chapter, three-act framework onto which I'm hanging all my literary experiments. This plot provides the primary forward motion of the novel, the story question ("who killed George Pullman?") and the overall dramatic arc. There is also a fairly normal sort of subplot involving the emotional life of the detective that will be resolved in a fairly normal sort of manner. All of that's represented by the black arrow in the diagram.

You've noticed by now that there are also 10 colored dots through which the plot arrow passes on its way from page Start to page Finish. These represent individual characters in the novel. Every one of the characters has his/her own story that is separate from the mystery plot. But these characters' stories are not subplots, because they do not develop over time and are not resolved within the confines of this novel. They are more like lengthy character sketches through which the detective story passes while the detective investigates the crime. Since they are, plotwise, fairly static, I have decided to call them Nonplots, which sounds a bit derogatory so I'm open to a better name.

The inspiration for this Nonplot substructure of the book comes from, first of all, Agatha Christie. Last year I was reading her Poirot mystery Halloween Party and I was struck by the long digression Christie took in the middle of the novel to talk about landscaping and gardening. It's some of Christie's most beautiful writing and had nothing really to do with the story going on around it. I thought it would be cool to do something digressive like this in a detective story. I also have been inspired by Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings, which is a long historical novel containing a bunch of character arcs that intersect but don't necessarily tie together in a direct way. Finally there's the work of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who wrote brilliant stream of consciousness novels where the internal action is very dramatic and compelling while the external action is fairly simple.

My Nonplots, then, are explorations of the characters in my novel, places where the plot slows down and the characters are expanded through internal monologues and suchlike stuff. The drama of these sections comes about through the use of conflict. The book is charactered with a bunch of couples of different ages in different stages of couplehood, and each Nonplot is a rumination by one half of the couple about the relationship. So you get both halves of the couples eventually (in my diagram A and F, for example, could be one couple while B and J are another), and each member of the couple will have their own point of view regarding their marriage/relationship. So I'm examining pairbonding, but not really telling full stories for each couple.

What this means is that the Nonplots overlap and connect and form little miniature arcs in the narrative, but there is no resolution, no thing that happens with these characters. Of course things happen to some of the characters related to the primary murder mystery, and there are of course connections between those events and the internal monologues in the Nonplots, but the connections for most of the characters are pretty tenuous. In a lot of ways, I have just realized, the book is like eating with a bunch of strangers in a resort dining room, where you chat at breakfast and maybe again at dinner with the charming couple from Nantucket and you never do learn how things will work out for their nephew in medical school or whatever. But deeper and more immediate than that. Maybe it's more like walking through the National Gallery and looking long at each painting and then moving on. Not sure, frankly, nor am I entirely certain how this structure will play out when the book is finished. I'm excited about it, though. It could be really cool if it works. And none of this stuff I've talked about today is the "philosophical" part of the philosophical detective story. That's an extra layer of ubercoolness atop all of the aforementioned coolness.


  1. You could call the Nonplots texture pieces or tangents. Or something else that starts with "t".

    Sounds like a cool concept. I like the way you break form...it's calculated and deliberate. I think that will keep it from reading like Character Soup in the finished book.

  2. Rick: Yeah, I'm all for experimenting, especially with formal elements. I don't so much approve of just thrashing around and refusing to have any form at all. Also, I have to have some Big New Idea About Narrative to make me interested enough to write a whole book. Just writing a story is too easy; there has to be an element of danger.

  3. I like that a reader--me--will get to read about both sides of a relationship. That sounds exciting. I'm also curious about the colored dots near the end of the story. I like when new things are introduced near the end, as long as they aren't things that were thrown in there just to make the plot work.

  4. Davin: Since the Nonplot action doesn't serve as exposition for the primary plot, I can have these character episodes all the way to the end of the book; they don't have to be loaded into any particular act in order to make the story work out. So they'll happen all along the course of the narrative and you'll find out things about each character/relationship all the way through the book. One of the things I'm trying to explore is the uncertainty of knowledge, especially about the inner lives of those closest to us. How do we know what our lover is really thinking? That sort of thing. The epistemological question begins to hint at why this is a philosophical detective story.

  5. I like Rick's Texture Pieces. That explains it perfectly, IMO.

    I'm impressed with the planning you seem to have done with this story. I never plan, ever. I don't think I could. But your book sounds intriguing, and I'm glad you shared your methods...crazy though they may seem to someone like me who begins with an idea the size of a penny and allows the characters to take the plot right out of my hands!

  6. April: It may sound counterintuitive, but one reason I plan so much is because if I just free write, I write lazily and lean heavily on cliches. By which I mean that I don't tend to surprise myself at all and churn out by-the-numbers stories that are predictable and flat. If I force myself to think about structure, I tend to let my imagination run about more riotously. I'm much less careful and I take more chances, all of which is good for the stories. So apparently I need to know that one element of the narrative is mostly finished in order to improvise against it. Which must say something about me but I don't know what.

  7. Scott, do you think the nonplots will be as isolated from the plot as you intend? I wonder if readers will try to force them more into the main story. I like the idea of seeing how readers respond to something new once you put it out into the world.

  8. I found this post interesting to think about and I especially love the diagram.

    I think that being able to diverge a bit is the beauty & allure of writing a novel.

    Bella Vida by Letty
    Have a great day.

  9. Davin, one of my goals is to have the Nonplots or texture pieces (Hey, I'll just call them "Daley Elements") flow along seamlessly in the narrative. The won't present themselves as Events for the reader; they'll just be part of the story. And since the narrative is more than just the plot, the reader will be correct to use these bits to form a large-scale thematic argument. So hopefully, while they're more or less isolated from the main plot, they aren't isolated from each other or from the fabric of the narrative.

    "Narrative" as distinct from "story" or "plot" is an important term in my world. I create narratives. That involves storytelling, but storytelling is only part of it.

  10. And me, I just sit down and write.

  11. Bailey, you are right that storytelling is only part of it, but it is a HUGE part. (Your comment to Davin.)

    But I love what you say here. And the diagram is awesome. I really like the way the dots represent the individual characters in the book. It makes the diagram so easy to understand. I could work with this. On a smaller scale for my middle grade book I have going right now. It's a mystery and I have had SOOOO many sub plots going on that the betas say it's confusing, but I want to keep them, because they add so much to the novel and I need them. It IS a mystery and I need all these story elements. If I can just figure out how. Now thanks to you I think I can. :-) Very cool.

  12. Chuck: Yeah, I can't do that. I feel lost right away.

    Robyn: I think of a novel (or a narrative) as something that contains a story. A story might be the biggest part of it, or it might not. Depends on the novel.

    Here's an example of the sort of Daley Element I've been adding to my WIP. This is still rough.

    In the garden, sitting on one of several wooden folding chairs beneath an apple tree, Mr Taylor smoked a pipe and worried. On his knee a small book was balanced. Taylor had allegedly come down to read and to let his wife lie quietly in the dark of their room. He probably should’ve been with her in case it was more than an ordinary headache but Taylor was afraid of that possibility even if he didn’t quite know it. Leonora was having a nap and he was sitting in the shade with a book, that was all.

    The book was a publication of the University of Chicago Press and had been written by a colleague of Taylor’s eldest son. Taylor’s son had given it to him so that Taylor would have “something interesting to read on vacation,” according to the inscription on the title page. Taylor’s eldest son liked to read on his vacations rather than to relax and admire the local sights and color. Sometimes Taylor thought his eldest son was a bit too stiff for his own good. He also wasn’t entirely sure that the book wasn’t a joke. It was called Kierkegaard at Large, and was a hundred and ten pages of dense, mostly incomprehensible philosophy printed in very small, dark type. Taylor could make nothing of it except that the author possibly was claiming that God was a bit of a scamp, getting up to all sorts of harebrained naughtiness that mankind mistook for either plagues or miracles, depending on the outcome. What any of it had to do with the Danish philosopher of the book’s title was well beyond Taylor. It gave him a headache, put him in a foul mood and failed to help Taylor take his mind off his wife.

    He thought about going inside the hotel and inquiring after a glass of lemonade, but when he’d come down from his room Taylor had found the staff in a tizzy, running from room to room with grim expressions and babbling inarticulate nonsense at him. Apparently there had been some sort of fracas in the garage. One of the other guests, he took it, had been injured. Taylor would keep that news from his wife. They had so little time left, he and Leonora, and he’s spoil as few moments of it as he could with bad news. There was already bad news enough for the rest of her days.
    How ironic it is, Taylor thought. All your life you tell yourself that you’ve got plenty of time and when you approach the end you see that no matter how plentiful your time was, it was never enough. Likely that’s all been observed before, Taylor thought. Poets and writers, he was sure, had been repeating that bit of wisdom for centuries. Poetry had never been one of Taylor’s comforts and so these revelations were all new and startling. He didn’t much enjoy it.

  13. You sir are one complicated dude.

    Your excerpt is lovely; great for character development, and setting.

    But if Taylor isn't involved in the main plot, I would feel impatient to get back to the main story. The Daley Element would be a distraction. If there were too many of these tangients that follow a character or situation that has no bearing on either the MC's or the overall plot, I might get frustrated trying to figure out what is relevant to the story, and what is a nice side trip into the lives of many non-essential people.

    This excerpt does allow the reader to get to know and understand Taylor. A much more entertaining character building excercise than reading a bunch of facts. I did like the "story within a story" feel.


  14. I am attempting to comment from my phone while riding a bus. It's slow. Anyway, the hope is that all these digressions will accumulate in the reader's mind and apply to one of the themes. Big plot is never my first concern. But in truth I don't know how it's going to work out. For now I'm trusting my original inspiration; it's been good to me so far!


  15. I suspect that if one were in dire need of a direct and uncomplicated road to a clear conclusion of the plot, Mr. Bailey's book might not be the first port of choice. ;)

    However, I think a detective story (philosophical or not--oh, and I'm glad you found the term of some use) actually allows for side excursions into tangental characters more than most genres. The nature of the mystery requires a certain number of "red herrings." I don't know if any of these halves of the couples will also be murder suspects or also provide direct clues to the mystery. Perhaps they are only there to provide indirect clues to the larger mystery (the Big Questions brought up by the book about relationships, for instance.)

    I like your idea of nonplots. I have a story I've been toying with about a telepath, but the telepathy is actually only a tool, an excuse, to present a series of different vignettes of various minds that the telepath "collects." I kept tripping up on how I could justify including them. I like your solution: don't justify it at all, just include them.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate Nook, Kindle UK, Kindle US , FREE

  16. This is exactly why I'm a pantser. I have serious respect for the authors that can sit down and plan out every detail so completely. I would go clinically insane.

  17. Tara Maya, you bring up some excellent points. First, while I like my plots to work in a cause-and-effect way, my story arcs aren't really of the "hero overcomes" nature. Though the detective novel hands me a plot of "detective solves a mystery" and I'm using that plot. But that plot is, I think, the least interesting thing about my book. You're also right that detectives generally spend the second act interrogating one suspect after another, so you get essentially a series of static vignettes, one for each suspect/witness. I'm going deeper than the detective just taking evidence from each person. It's almost as if the suspects/witnesses go into a confessional, but not with the detective. All my nonplots happen when the characters are alone. The detective, because she's the hero and because she has a working subplot and embodies the themes of the book, gets a series of her own internal monologues that are just like those of the other characters. And stuff. It's hard to describe it without actually quoting reams of text from the novel.

    Anyway, everyone in the novel is connected in some way to the murder, but the digressions are in general not connected to the investigation of the crime. They could be considered a form of sideshadowing, actually. But mostly, as you say, you don't come to this book of mine for a straightforward plot resolution. The detective story is just an excuse for all the character exploration going on, because this is more a book about couples and relationships than it is a mystery. Readers looking for a straightforward mystery are likely not going to enjoy my novel, which is fine because I'm not writing it for them.

  18. I love that example, Bailey. I was telling another writer about your diagram this morning. I sent her over here to have a look. :-)

  19. Love your description of how the nonplots intersect the plots. I really enjoyed both Hallowe'en Party and Birds Without Wings as well, so I know what you mean...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.