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Nov 10, 2012

NaNoWriMo Tip #10: 3 Subplots To Strengthen Your Novel


These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works.

Now you should have the main story arc traced out for your novel, but you may find that it’s thin in places. Perhaps it needs flushing out with a subplot.

There are three subplots that can’t go wrong. They work as plots too… In fact, they work so well as plots, that they define whole genres. Take Romance – a whole genre. Now, if you are writing a Romance novel, then Romance is your Main Plot, and you can’t use it as the subplot. Wait—I take that back. Of course you could—you could introduce a second couple, who also have a love story. Sometimes the second couple, the subplot, will be used as a foil for the main couple, and therefore won’t have a HEA (Happily Ever After.) Or they could have their own HEA. It’s up to you.


One McGuffin To Rule Them All. (Not to be confused with the Segulah Ring.)
Hitchcock coined the term “McGuffin.” It refers to the tangible object or visible goal that everyone is after or trying to achieve. Steal the secret plans. Discover the cure. Win the race. Blow up the Death Star. Use the One Ring to Rule them all and in the darkness bind them. You get the idea.

The key is that the McGuffin has to be a tangible, visible object or achievement. It’s not an inner goal, or a psychological achievement. It’s concrete. What the McGuffin means to the hero may change throughout the course of the story. He may begin by wanting it and end by destroying it, or vice versa. But either way, you’ll know if he has it or does it.

If your main plot has only psychological goals – and I include “falling in love” or “finding the murderer” in this – then consider adding a McGuffin plot.


It’s hard to think of any novel that wouldn’t benefit from some suspense. If you are writing a thriller or a murder mystery, you already know this: it’s your main plot. But even if you are writing a fantasy (McGuffin) plot or a contemporary love story (Romance) plot, throwing in suspense or even a murder mystery, can add a layer of intrigue and page-turning fun.

If your genre is not mystery, you have to make sure that you don’t let the murder mystery plot overshadow your main story. It also can’t be too different in tone from your main story. If the main plot involves a gentle romance between a cat loving woman and a handsome veterinarian who is secretly a billionaire, you could include a minor mystery about who killed his rich uncle (maybe he himself is under suspicion), but it wouldn’t be wise to include gory scenes of the murder.


Have you ever noticed that when Hollywood adapts a novel, they often add a romantic subplot to a book that had none? Sometimes this stretches credulity, as when they throw a female character in with an all male crew on a pirate ship. In fact, this predates Hollywood. Gilbert and Sullivan made fun of this in their operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, when they had “the Admiral of the Sea, the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy,” turn up with dozens of women in tow, who explained, “And we are his cousins, whom he reckons by the dozens, his cousins and his sisters and his aunts!”

Ridiculous as this sometime is, there’s a good reason for it. Any story that lacks a romance (unless it’s for children), can be improved by adding one. Almost any story. Ok, fine, I’m sure you can think of exceptions, but really, trust me on this, most stories benefit.

This doesn’t mean the romance subplot has to take over the book. Unless Romance is your genre, it shouldn’t be the main focus. But one of the best ways to signal to a reader that the hero has grown and changed during the story—and that should be the whole point of the main plot—is to show how he (or she) is now finally worthy of wooing and winning the love interest.

A word of caution. Sometimes, you might fly in a manic frenzy and throw all three of these powerful plot techniques into the same book. Can you get away with that?

Sure…as long as you keep in mind which is your main attraction. Be true to your genre and your vision for the book.

1 comment:

Ink in the Book said...

Great tips. I've used one of these, romance, to add depth as a subplot. I'm trying mystery right now...