Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Secondary/Tertiary Plots – Part 1

I am so red-faced. This ended up in draft status last week, instead of queueing for posting. My sincere apologies.

Last week I wrote about the primary plot, the thing that drives a story. Secondary plots are smaller threads that weave themselves through and around the primary plot. Tertiary plots are grace notes, which pick up highlights, the way beading picks up highlights in embroidery.

Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.

Consider an imaginary mystery, Devil at the Dinner Table. The theme is how a couple in their fifties cope with major changes.

Minette and Dougie Shaw live in Drumheller, Alberta. Dougie owns a feed-and-hardware store. Minette is assistant manager at a local grocery.

Primary Plots

  • The RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, so to clear her husband, Minette solves the murder.

Secondary and Tertiary Plots

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt, and in addition to working at the grocery, she starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes and that his poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays, and since Minette is desperate for money to start her business, she begs Eustacia to be her partner.
  • When their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break, Minette tells her there’s no more money for tuition.
  • It’s a combination Christmas story/family reunion.

Consider this

Gone with the Wind had one primary plot and one secondary plot.

  • Primary plot: Scarlet O’Hara learns that men are real people, not toys.
  • Secondary plot: She survives the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • Everything in the book’s 1,024 pages relates to those two plots.

In contrast, Devil at the Dinner Table has so many primary plots, secondary, and tertiary plots that it’s unlikely any author could finish writing it or any reader would want to read it.

As I wrote last week, the primary plot in any mystery novel is solve the murder. We’ve got that, so we’re okay there.

At first glance, it appears that there are a walloping six secondary and tertiary plots. Look again. See how many sentences have and, so, but, because, in addition to or semi-colons? Keep in mind one simple sentence equals one plot. Every time one of those conjunction words or punctuation marks appear, we’ve slid into another plot.

Breaking down our original list

  • Minette discovers that the feed-and-hardware store is almost bankrupt.
  • She starts her own business to support her family.
  • Stress jeopardize Minette and Dougie’s marriage.
  • Dougie covers up that he has diabetes.
  • Poor health contributed to his business failure.
  • Minette’s cousin-from-heck, Eustacia, arrives for the Christmas holidays.
  • Minette begs Eustacia to be her business partner.
  • Their daughter, Jade, comes home from university on Christmas break.
  • Jade discovers there is no money for tuition.
  • It’s a Christmas story.
  • It’s a family reunion story.

Trust me, eleven subplots are too many. Ways to winnow down subplots include determining the difference between an incident and a subplot; refusing to two-step in plot development, and focusing only on the subplots that relate directly to the main plots.

An incident is one emotionally-charged event, which may be crucial to the story, but the reader doesn’t follow it as a thread throughout the book. In Gone with the Wind, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death was an incident, not a subplot. Incidents both turn the current plot, and sow seeds for future books.

Jade learning there is no money her tuition is an incident, rather than a secondary plot. Jade can either be emotionally supportive to her parents, or flounce out in heated anger. In either case, in a series, no resolution is needed in this book. Let the unanswered question of what will Jade do now hang there, and pick it up in the next book.

On the other hand, a good secondary plot runs through not only a single book, but the entire series, like a ripple of pink fabric running through an otherwise blue-and-green quilt.

Two-stepping belongs on the dance floor, not in subplots. Minette learns that Dougie’s business is failing, and convinces Eustacia to be her partner, and founds her own business is not only two-stepping, it’s three-stepping. Each element could be the focus of one book. It’s important to bring series characters along using baby steps. Finding out the business is in trouble is enough for one book. Stay there. Dive deep into all the implications of a fifty-something wife, learning her financial security just disappeared. Look at it from different angles. Wring it out for all it is worth. Let it fill the entire book.

Finally, focus only on secondary and tertiary plots that relate directly to the main plot. How much does Dougie’s diabetes contribute to the story? More important, how much of the book’s word budget will the author spend on visits to the doctor, Minette learning to cook diabetic meals, conflicts between Minette and Dougie about is he or isn’t he doing what the doctor said, and the inevitable diabetic reaction at the book’s climax? The likely return on investment won’t be worth it.

Books set in December can’t help but be holiday stories, but adding a family reunion to everything else pushes the book over the top.

A revised, and manageable, plot list for Devil at the Dinner Table might look like this.

Primary Plot

  • When the RCMP arrest Dougie for a banker’s murder, Minette clear her husband by solving the murder.

Secondary Plot

  • Minette discovers her financial security has disappeared.

Tertiary Plot

  • Eustacia, Minette’s cousin-from-heck, arrives unexpectedly to spend Christmas.

Next Tuesday, September 9, I hope you’ll be back for Secondary and Tertiary Plots – Part 2. We’ll look at how to recognize secondary and tertiary plots and how much of a book should be devoted to each plot.

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