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Discover & Rewrite Subplots

© 2009 By Robert J. Ray

In The English Patient Geoffrey Clifton is a British spy.

That secret is buried in Subplot Two of The English Patient.

Katherine Clifton, Geoffrey’s wife, has a lover.

That secret is buried in Subplot One.

Katherine knows Geoffrey’s secret.

Geoffrey discovers Katherine’s secret at the climax of the story when he tries to kill her and her lover.

The Secret is one reason to Discover and to Rewrite subplots.

The other reason for rewriting your subplots is to discover subtext – the stuff that hovers under the surface of the words on the page.

The subtext in The English Patient is animal lust.

Katherine wants Almasy, the patient.

She tells the story of Gyges the spear carrier and King Candaules, who is married to a beautiful queen named Omphale. The king orders Gyges to view the queen naked. The queen catches Gyges and gives him the old either-or: Either Gyges kills the king or Omphale kills Gyges.

This story of a sexual triad in ancient Lydia (Lover-Queen-King) mirrors a similar sexual triad in the North African desert: Lover-Wife-Husband

The lover is County Almasy, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film.

The wife is Katherine Clifton, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

In this dialogue from early in Act One of the film, you can see Almasy’s plot intertwining with subplot one (Katherine) and subplot two (Geoffrey), marking the start of the sexual triad. D’Agostino, a fellow explorer, introduces Almasy. The subject on the surface is grammar – nouns and adjectives – but when the talk shifts from cars to love, we see the sexual triad taking shape. The story spins out of the sexual triad buried in the subtext: Almasy, who has no wife, will steal Geoffrey’s wife away. Geoffrey, who does not like being cuckolded, will kill his wife and himself. Almasy, who winds up burnt half to death, swathed in bandages, lives just long enough to tell the tale.
D’AGOSTINO
Mrs. Clifton – Count Almasy.
KATHARINE
(smiling, offering her hand)
Geoffrey gave me your monograph when
I was reading up on the desert.
Very impressive.
ALMÁSY
(stiff)
Thank you.
KATHARINE
I wanted to meet a man who could write
such a long paper with so few adjectives.
ALMÁSY
A thing is still a thing no matter what
you place in front of it.  Big car, slow
car, chauffeur-driven car, still a car.
CLIFTON
(joining them and joining in)
A broken car?
ALMÁSY
Still a car.
CLIFFTON
(hands them champagne)
Not much use, though.
KATHARINE
Love?  Romantic love, platonic love,
filial love – ?  Quite different things,
surely?
CLIFTON
(hugging Katharine)
Uxoriousness – that’s my favorite kind
of love.  Excessive love of one’s wife.
ALMÁSY
(a dry smile)
There you have me.

How do you rewrite the subplots?

You identify the scenes (such as this one above) that track each subplot through the entire story. Then you lift those scenes from the manuscript and paste them into a separate document. You treat that document as a single story. Doing this you’ll see deeper into the structure and you’ll get control of the subplot story line. For example, at Plot Point Two of The Great Gatsby, the main characters have lunch. Daisy kisses Gatsby, marking him for death. She telegraphs her affair to her husband, drawing him into her secret with a dark look. The kiss and the look motivate her Daisy’s husband to take action. He calls Gatsby a crook. Informs Daisy she’s fooling around with a bootlegger. That’s enough for Daisy. She drives out behind the wheel of Gatsby’s yellow car. Smacks her husband’s mistress and lets Gatsby take the blame. There is a full analysis of Plot Point 2 in The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.

A personal note from Bob Ray:

I am rewriting my thriller one subplot at a time.

Here are the steps I took.

  1. Scan the manuscript for characters with three or more scenes.
  2. Plug those characters into a grid – follow the models in the rewrite book for Gatsby and Jane Eyre.
  3. Assign Subplot One to your antagonist.
  4. Assign numbered subplots to your other characters. If you have more than six subplots, cut the characters (I cut three from my thriller) or combine characters with similar motives.
  5. Create a separate document for Subplot1 by cutting and pasting all the scenes where your antagonist appears.
  6. Name the scenes (sample names in the rewrite book: Crimson Room, Proposal, Confession, Birthday, Wedding, Funeral, etc.)
  7. Using the scene template (Setting, Character and POV, Action, Dialogue, Intruder, Hook to the next scene), rewrite the scenes for that subplot.
  8. When all the scenes are rewritten, paste them back into your manuscript in the right order and turn to Subplot Two.

Here’s the good stuff about rewriting subplots.

  1. The work goes fast because you are rewriting a finite number of scenes, a known number of pages. You can see your character with more clarity. You know how this subplot behaves in the three phases of story: beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Insights pop fast as you rewrite because you are viewing your novel from different perspective, with new eyes – the eyes of a subplot character.
  3. New Eyes provides a deeper understanding of this character, who is no longer tucked out of sight.
  4. A better understanding of character eliminates waste: you write just enough, not too much.
  5. Rewriting one subplot throws light on another subplot.
  6. If you do the work, your book gets better faster.

See Structural Anthropology Claude Levi-Strauss’s landmark book for  insights into why this technique works. Read the chapter on the study of myth.

Bob Ray

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2 Comments

  1. Pam wrote:

    So much to do! I love it. Thanks for the richness. Thanks for the generosity. Who taught you to be such good men?

    Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  2. Linda Adams wrote:

    It’s been an eye opening experience to pull the subplots out of the main story to work on. For many, many years I’ve struggled with subplots. Where other people have too many, I struggle to get any into the story. They just don’t evolve naturally for me when I’m doing a first draft. And when I try asking what to do, everyone says, “Just add a romance!” Never mind that I don’t like romances, and anything I try to add feels like I shoehorned it in. I’ve been working on my first subplots, which had about 5 scenes to be revised and 9 more that needed to be added. I’ve already gotten good ideas on how to connect things together so it’s been very useful.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

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