Last week I wrote about how many primary, secondary, and tertiary plots are needed for a book. The short answer is start with one of each, and see how it goes.
In genre fiction, the primary plot is a given
- Adventure — salvation quest
- Mystery — solving a crime, usually murder
- Romance — overcome obstacles to love
- Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
- Thriller — save the world, or some portion of it
- Western — land, water, and a chance to start over
Primary plots are always about opposition
- Adventure — think Samwise Gamgee taking one more step away from the Shire than he’s ever taken before
- Mystery — good versus evil
- Romance — love versus obstacles
- Science fiction/fantasy — keeping the status quo versus, sometimes literally, reaching for the stars
- Thriller — destruction versus salvation
- Western — ranchers versus farmers, water versus drought, order versus chaos
Do we really need a secondary plot?
In most cases, yes. A primary plot sets up two dimensions, something versus something else. The next step is to turn that into three dimensions, by adding depth. That’s were secondary plots come in. These are some ways that secondary plots add depth to a story.
Explore the primary problem from a different angle, with a different outcome
Our story is about familiar abduction: relatives who haven’t been awarded custody or have been prevented by the court from seeing a child kidnap that child. Our secondary plot is that the protagonist’s best friend confesses she was kidnapped as a child. This might be used to give more depth to the search for the missing child. Or it might be used for humor, the best friend was kidnapped by a free-spirited relative. Her stories about her and her aunt on the run become funnier and more bizarre as the book progresses.
Avoid mismatching tones of primary and secondary plots. If this is a dark story with significant danger, even the possibility of death, for the kidnapped child, matching it with the zany aunt on the run won’t do either plot any good.
Link two stories, separated by geography or time
Vicki Lane is absolutely wonderful in doing this with her Elizabeth Goodweather series. One plot line is current day, one is in the past, and what links them is the geography. Both stories happen in the same place.
The trick here is that the secondary plot can’t be all back story, one person telling other people about what happened. We have to actually take the reader to the different location and/or the different time. This usually involves having more than one point of view character.
In a series, bring forward a tertiary plot
Our story is about being killed for not paying gambling debts. During the series, one of the background characters is known to have a gambling problem. This is the book where he gets a larger role, so that by the end of the book, he’s admitted he has a problem and is seeking help.
Tertiary plots fill in holes
While secondary plots are almost always needed, tertiary plots are optional. They add a bit of sparkle. In quilting, this is known as a zest strip, which is a thin line of cloth, often no wider than 1/2 inch, which picks up one of the colors in other fabrics and adds zest or pop to the quilt. Uses for tertiary plots include
Thread a background plot forward through a series
This is the gambler above. His problem gets to hover in the background until we need it.
Thread the source of a vital piece of information through the book so it doesn’t appear out of nowhere
In the last episode of Magnum, the primary plot is Magnum reuniting with his daughter, Lilly. The secondary plot is Rick getting married. Akin to the secondary plot is Magnum, a member of the wedding party, missing every fitting appointment for his wedding clothes.
Viewers assumed this was a comic tertiary plot, and that Magnum would get to the last fitting with seconds to spare; that Higgings would produce a perfectly fitting tuxedo out of thin air; or that Magnum would show up for the formal wedding dressed in his usual Hawaiian shirt, cut-offs, and flip-flops. Just in case there is a single person on the planet who hasn’t seen this episode and still plans to, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say that what he shows up wearing is a total surprise, which carried the final episode to a new level.
Increase the word count
We’ve written a great book, but our editor says it’s 5,000 words too short. In all likelihood, we’ve said what needs to be said about our primary and secondary plots. Rather than try to pad, throw in a small, third-level plot.
How much is enough?
I’m wearing my personal opinion hat. These figures aren’t scientific. This is my best educated guess, honed over a decade and a half of serious writing. Feel free to debate with me.
- The primary plot needs to be in every chapter. Period. If it’s not there, what is that chapter doing in the book?
- The secondary plot should not be more than 1/5 to 1/4 of the book; for a 330 page book, that’s 66 to 82 pages. Any longer than that and it threatens to overwhelm the primary plot.
- The tertiary plot should not be more than 1/10 of the book; even 1/20 may be enough. For the same size book, that 16 to 33 pages.
How do we know how much secondary and tertiary plot we’ve written?
We count the number of pages. That’s not as onerous as it sounds. First, we skip counting occasional two or three lines of dialog. So if our Magnum episode were a book, an exchange like this wouldn’t need to be counted.
“You missed another appointment with the tailor.”
“I know, I know. Later, Rick.”
Count no earlier than the second draft; third draft might be even better. I’m assuming we’re working in either Word or Scrivener.
- Pick two bright highlight colors, one for the secondary plot, one for the tertiary plot. Let’s say blue for secondary; and yellow for tertiary.
- Scroll through the document, looking for secondary and tertiary scenes. Highlight the first and last lines of those scene.
- Once we’ve been through the entire document, set the view so multiple pages are seen at one time. The blue and yellow lines will stick out. Estimate the number of pages for each scene.
- Look at not only the number of pages, but spacing as well. Do the blue and yellow colors pop up with some regularity, or does the tertiary plot disappear for 200 pages, then suddenly reappear. Not good; needs fixing.
I hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 9, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.
Thursday, September 4th, because we’re all trying to get back in the school year habits, Level Thinking will discuss forming new habits.