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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The Birds and the Bs: Why Even a Love Story Needs a Love Subplot

   
Author Topic: The Birds and the Bs: Why Even a Love Story Needs a Love Subplot
MattLeo
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The classic Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie "Pat and Mike" is your standard love story with a wildly mismatched couple. Kate plays Pat, a brainy and sophisticated college athlete, and Spencer plays Mike, a low-class but street smart sports promoter who sees Pat as a potential meal ticket.

Right at the start of act 2, when Pat decides to let Mike take her on as a client, the movie suddenly introduces a B plot involving Davie Hucko (played by Aldo Ray), a down-on-his-luck boxer who was Mike's hot property before Pat came along. It's a wonderful subplot, but why did the writers put it in there? As anyone who's ever watched a movie adaption of a favorite novel knows, there's not a lot of room for subplots in a movie. So why did the writers think it was necessary to take screen time away from the A plot to spend on this B subplot?

In part it's because no matter how compelling the main character's story is, we can use a break from it. A subplot like this gives the writer a second string to play on. By giving us a break on the protag's main plot travails he can add to them, lighten them, or provide counterpoint. But there's more going on here. Davie's jealous of Pat when Mike turns his attentions to her. By the end of the movie, Pat and Davie fast friends, and with her help Davie has against all expectation won his big fight. So the B story here is a love story. It's the unexpected love story within the predictable love story we came to see.

What is more, Davie's developing relationship with Pat exactly parallels Pat's with Mike. Pat's got this overbearing fiancé who's constantly undermining her confidence, and Mike plays this exact same role with Davie. And just as Mike helps Pat to become a success, Pat helps Davie. The B story restates the basic theme of the movie: to succeed you need the support of someone who believes in you. The B story is there to make the claim that this theme isn't just peculiar to Pat, it's universal.

That's what a well-crafted subplot can do for a story; state a theme that makes the details of the main plot mean something more. But is that subplot necessarily a love story? Not if you are stubbornly literal and insist that a "love story" is always about a man and a woman forming a stable procreative relationship. But the myth of romantic love isn't really about finding a regular sex partner; it's about connecting with another person who makes you complete. Since plots work better if the hero has skin in the game, it follows that the main plot tends to be about doing things that complete the hero. A good subplot can energize the main plot by showing why the hero cares about the outcome.

This is especially evident in films. There isn't a lot of space for elaborate plotting in a movie, so scripts tend to distill all the complexity that would be in a novel into a single B story. That's one of the reasons buddy movies work so well; they've got a built-in B story about the buddies discovering their love for each other and becoming better for it. In the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow's love for Dorothy inspires him to stop acting like an idiot and use his intelligence, and Dorothy's love for Scarecrow reminds her of the loved ones she's left behind.

The B story romance between Tony and Pepper in the "Iron Man" movies is a more recent example. These are action movies, and they live or die by attracting the under-25 male demographic. So why waste screen time on romantic complications between two middle-aged stars, no matter how wonderful the chemistry between them? Oh, it gives the writers a chance to raise the stakes a little bit by putting Pepper in peril, but there are other ways to do that without getting into all that yucky kissing between old folks. The reason the B story is there is that these films are about how Tony, for all his wealth, power and charisma, is incomplete because he doesn't know how to be a responsible and caring person. He learns those things from Pepper, who he can always count on to be there for him and do right by him. She's his Iron Man. Take her out of those movies and they'd no longer speak to us emotionally. They wouldn't be epic, they'd just be big.

So a love subplot isn't necessarily about yucky kissing. Most of the time it's not, and in a love story it never is. An effective love subplot is about revealing who the main character really is and connecting us to his aspirations.


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Robert Nowall
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I dunno...in a book by the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, he said he deliberately chose not to have "B-plots" in the episodes, feeling that the main story should be strong enough in every case to drag the viewer's attention along in every case. It might be nice to have a B-plot---I use 'em from time to time---but it's not a crutch to be leaned on to make it easier for the writer, or a device to generate more words and fill up those blank pages...
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Crystal Stevens
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This is something I have trouble with. I see all kinds of possibilities for subplots in my stories, sometimes to help round out my principle characters. Then I go back through and ask myself which of these are relevent to my story and which are not. They might be a nice touch, but I'm basically writing short stories at this time. That doesn't leave much room for subplots... unless they drive the story forward.

So, yes, I agree that a well crafted subplot can add more meaning to the story and enrich it for the reader... if done right .


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MattLeo
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Well, Robert, I always say my rulebook contains no rules, only guidelines.

That said, remember that an episode of a sitcom like "Everyone Loves Raymond" is only 22 minutes long or so, once you deduct the commercials. Compare this to even a compact movie like "Pat and Mike", which runs 95 minutes, and has no commercials to break it up. Comparing a sitcom episode to a movie is like comparing a short story to an epic novel.

And novels are as much more intricately plotted than movie scripts as movie scripts are to TV episodes.

The other thing to consider is that TV series are serial stories. What is dramatic in a standalone story is melodramatic to ridiculous in a serial. If you've got over a hundred stories in a series (as in the run of a hit TV series), you can't embroil the main character in some kind of life changing crisis in every single installment.

On the other hand, you've got other resources to draw upon in a serial form. The most important is the audience's familiarity with the regular characters. Often concerns which are embodied in a subplot for a standalone story can be embodied in characters in a seria.

For example the classic detective serial used to nearly always gives the great detective a sidekick. The sidekick character's a kind of narrative swiss army knife. He can raise the question that's on the readers' minds; he can spout ridiculous theories of the crime to emphasize the detective's brilliance; in a pinch he can even be put in peril to give the great detective a kick in the pants. But the most important thing he does is provide an emotional anchor for the detective's soaring intellectual brilliance. When we read a Sherlock Holmes story, it is Watson we take our emotional cues from, not Holmes.

Now I don't watch much TV, and I've never even seen an episode of "Everyone Loves Raymond", but I'll eat my hat if there aren't supporting characters who change the emotional tone of a scene just by walking on and saying a few lines. That's because the characters themselves represent long running subplots in the overall arc of the series.


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tchernabyelo
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I can understand why someone producing 23-minute episodes of a comedy show would decide not to include a B-plot, though it is still common even at that length (and it's almost compulsory at 48-minute length, though shows telling a single tight story can get away without it - e.g. Breaking Bad, for my money the best written TV show I've ever seen).

What exactly counts as a "subpot" in novel terms is open to some question. For some authors, a subplot is just another part of the main character's journey through the main plot (e.g. the romance between the MC and a subsidiary character who is helping them with the main plot might be considdered a sub-plot). For others, a sub-plot is something that is going on alongside the main plot and seems unconnected until late on. For yet others, a sub-plot is a mini-story woven through the main plot but unrelated to it - used usually to allow extra tension when the main plot is in a quieter phase.

I'd venture to suggest that anything novel-size almost HAS to have at least one subplot, but it does depend on definition (e.g. in LOTR, if dealing with Sauron is the main plot, you can consider Saruman the subplot).

It's also worth remembering that the typical film is equivalent to a novella, not a full-size novel. That may be the reason that (IMO) most films which do include a subplot use the first two types I mentioned above. These days, subplots in movies are less common, since so many movies are interested in filling the screen with as many 3D/CGI spectacles as possible, usually at the expense of story.


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MattLeo
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Well, Crystal, a short story is a different animal from a movie or a novel; a short story has less narrative machinery than a novel. I always think of Updike's story "A&P" as the paradigm for writing a short story. It takes place in a single location with a limited cast of characters of the span of maybe ten minutes.

So the challenge is to pare down the complexity in a short story but leave your themes intact.

In a novel one also must often pare down complexity, but you're still going to end up with a lot more narrative machinery than in a short story. The challenge is to orchestrate all that detail so it says what you want it to say.

quote:

So, yes, I agree that a well crafted subplot can add more meaning to the story and enrich it for the reader... if done right.

But what does "done right" mean? I think it means that it adds considerably to the impact of the main story. An entertaining subplot that can be removed without doing injury to the main story should be removed.

A 50 word flash fiction story doesn't even have _room_ for subplots of any kind, so when I say "Even a Love Story needs a Love Subplot" I'm obviously engaging in hyperbole. It's more pithy than writing "In fiction forms where subplots are reasonable or expected, a subplot should showcase the emotional drives of key characters in a way that elucidates their behavior in the main plot, particularly if the subplot involves the main story's protagonist."

What I'm writing about is what makes an effective subplot.


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MattLeo
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tchernabyelo -- the comparison of a movie to novella is an interesting one.

Without making claim to any kind of ontological authority, I'd like to posit the following taxonomy for purposes of this discussion: "plot complications" vs. "plot twists" vs. "plot digressions" vs. "subplots".

A plot complication is a situation that arises in the course of the main plot which presents an obstacle to a character's pursuit of his goal. The hero races to save the victim in the north tower before the time bomb explodes, but the door is locked (complication)!

A plot twist is a complication which changes the direction of the main plot by forcing the character's hand or presenting him with a new choice. When the hero races to library to retrieve a key, he discovers a note from the villain informing him that there's a second victim in the south tower, and there's a time bomb there set to go off at the exact same time. But there isn't time to save both (plot twist).

A plot digression is a situation in which a character takes part, but which does not in itself present a new obstacle or choice for that character in the main plot. In other words it has our hero doing stuff which has nothing to do (digression) with leading him to the choice of towers. This digression probably serves to convey characterization and backstory. The scene way back in act 1 where our hero jumps in to help his buddy on the police bomb squad to remember "blue wire" vs. "red wire" is a digression which serves only to bring us up to speed on the hero's backstory and capabilities.

A subplot is a plot digression which dramatically alters the nature of a character's choices and actions in the main plot. The whole bit in Act 2 where where the hero bonds with his new partner (the victim in the north tower) while she helped him search for his long lost daughter (the victim in the south tower) doesn't alter the choices available to him. It's still just north or south. But it alters the significance of that choice. Will he choose to save the new love interest (north) or the long-lost daughter he doesn't even know (south)?

So I'd say that using these terms, "digressions" are inefficient, unless they're "subplots". The whole bit with the bomb squad in Act 1 could be replaced with the old Chekhov's Gun routine: the hero receives his notice that he's due for recertification in the Agency's bomb defusing program. Information conveyed.


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Robert Nowall
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I'd say the subplots in Lord of the Rings were those times where characters were off doing other things, sometimes telling them in flashbacks (Gandalf's story at the Council of Elrond), or, from the Breaking of the Fellowship on to the Last Battle, covering what was going on around two or three different sets of characters.

I think if the B-plot can be removed, and the story still makes sense with whatever the B-plot pointed out or illuminated, then it didn't belong there in the first place.


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MattLeo
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I'd be more permissive with B plots, Robert. If removing the B plot wouldn't change or weaken the significance of the main plot, I'd agree with you: take it out.

But many stories would be fatally weakened without that B plot, even though removing that plot doesn't necessarily make the main plot nonsense.

The relationship between Pat and Davie in "Pat and Mike" has no necessary logical bearing on the outcome of the main plot, but it strengthens the theme of the story greatly. The same can be said for the relationship between Tony and Pepper in the Iron Man movies. Remove that and all the main plot action still makes sense. Tony would rescue his personal assistant (we don't even have to give her a name) because anybody would. But the fact that it's his personal assistant doesn't raise the stakes for him in the same way as it being the person who was always there for him.

If logical necessity is the litmus test for including subplots, then no subplot should ever be included. You could always alter the main plot not to require the subplot, either by changing the nature of the decisions presented to the protagonist, or by various forms of exposition. That's what Gandalf's recollection at the Council of Elrond was: expository dialog. The Council of Elrond was a massive narrative housecleaning that tidied up a very messy story.

I'd say the inclusion litmus test for subpots isn't logical necessity; it's whether the subplot raises the stakes for the characters in the main plot.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 31, 2011).]


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skadder
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quote:
Well, Robert, I always say my rulebook contains no rules, only guidelines.

Perhaps rename it as 'Guideline Book'.


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Merlion-Emrys
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I think trying to come up with catagories and definitions, and trying to figure out what is or isn't "necessary" is an exercise in frustrating pointlessness.

Each story should be told in whatever way that story should be told. Each work of art...of whatever kind...should include whatever its creator feels it needs or enhances its effectivness in whatever purpose(s) they have set for it.


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MattLeo
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Merlion-Emrys -- While I agree that each author is the ultimately responsible for what goes into his stories, I don't agree that trying to think about how stories work analytically is a waste of time. Provided of course you don't get to enamored of whatever framework you come up with.

quote:
Each story should be told in whatever way that story should be told. Each work of art...of whatever kind...should include whatever its creator feels it needs or enhances its effectivness in whatever purpose(s) they have set for it.

Here's where I disagree with the above. (1) there is no one way any story "should" be told; there's alway a way to improve it. (2) Not having language or a cognitive framework leaves authors with no landmarks for charting *how* they are going to enhance their work, or to preserve the purpose of the work if they have to edit it down. (3) Creator's feelings are often misguided towards things like how they handle exposition. A more analytical approach to critiquing their own writing can help remove some of the emotional sting of change.

It takes me awhile to boil down the simple ideas in my head to simple language, but I think I can do it now. A subplot should enhance the emotional impact of the main story for the reader. If it doesn't, then it's at best a missed opportunity. How can a subplot do this? By engaging primal emotions like love or fear or hate; or using irony to emphasize features of the main storyline.


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MattLeo
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quote:
Perhaps rename it as 'Guideline Book'.

Well, skadder, I never said I was telling the truth.

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 31, 2011).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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This sounds to me like something I've heard of that has been referred to as "parallel plotting and mirror plotting."

Both of these kinds of plotting techniques refer to internal conflicts for the protagonist versus external conflicts. It's up to the author which kind of conflict is going to be the main focus (or "main plot") of the story, but the other one could certainly be a subplot.

The "parallel" and "mirror" aspects refer to whether the main plot (either external or internal conflict generated) is parallelled (followed, imitated, etc) by the subplot, or mirrored (reversed in direction or pattern).

Example of mirrored plotting: the hero has to deal with capturing the bad guy (external), but the hero also has to deal with letting something important in the hero's emotional life go, so the hero can mature--and succeed in capturing the bad guy (internal). (The "letting go" internal conflict can be part of the "price" of the story, by the way.)


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
While I agree that each author is the ultimately responsible for what goes into his stories, I don't agree that trying to think about how stories work analytically is a waste of time.


That depends on whether your talking about "stories" or "a story." When your talking about "stories" only very broad and generalized analysis is going to go much of anywhere. Discussion of plot, for example. But putting too much effort in trying to define subplot versus B-plot versus plot digression and such similar things in any general way, in my experience, rarely has a whole lot of effect. Although I see now that you did specify in the context of this discussion. Even that, though, is a bit iffy. I prefer to discuss a specific story or stories instead, or broad conceptual archetypes. With "a story" you have a full context to analyze. You can use the totallity to come to a conclusion about why an author did this or didn't do that. But when you try to do such things with stories in general...


quote:
Provided of course you don't get to enamored of whatever framework you come up with.


You get this situation, one of the greatest banes upon creativity in existence. People inevitably become enamored of frameworks because they make things easier and because they also allow for the value judgements many folks love to make.

quote:
there is no one way any story "should" be told


Yes, there is. That way is the way the storyteller wishes to tell it, or how the story wishes to be told. So, its either two ways, one way, or two ways that are actually the same thing from different points of view...depending on your point of view.

The trouble I have with frameworks and definitions and evers nevers and musts is they attempt to create ways stories should be told from outside instead of inside.

quote:
there's alway a way to improve it


"Improve" is in the eye of the beholder. One mans improvement is another's ruination. That's why I say it, in the end, all comes down to what the creator wants (or what the story wants depending on how you feel about such things.) Now, admitedly I think for most of us tale-makers, there is always room for improvement, in our own eyes, for our works. But what they say about paintings is true of all artistic works: they are never finished, only abandoned. If we never stop looking for ways to improve a given piece, it never leaves our desk.

quote:
Not having language or a cognitive framework leaves authors with no landmarks for charting *how* they are going to enhance their work, or to preserve the purpose of the work if they have to edit it down.


This is the tough part. To communicate, we have to define, at least somewhat. But obviously it's a pretty leaky boat. Take almost any word, and especially almost any non-noun, and its probably going to have multiple meanings and further its probably going to have multiple shades of meaning and interpretation for each definition. I tried to get a consensus definition for the words "show" and "tell" in the context of literature once. It didn't work. Now you did talk about trying to set definitions purely for the purpose of this discussion (though I'm not sure I understand the discussion fully; the initial post isn't a question its more of a statement. It's you putting forth a conclusion and how you came to it, which is totally ok of course.) I suppose I am digressing/derailing a bit...or maybe not, because this seems to be more or less a free-form discussion to me. Anyway we do have to have some definitions to understand each other, but creative works are so varied that attempts to come up with generalized definitions of concepts, to apply to ALL stories, often don't work out that well. That's why I prefer to try and analyze or understanding specific stories.

quote:
Creator's feelings are often misguided towards things like how they handle exposition. A more analytical approach to critiquing their own writing can help remove some of the emotional sting of change.


Or it can stifle, by making people afraid to do anything that verges outside the framework. I'm not saying you do or intend this. Thats just part of why I'm very leering of absolute definitions and statements.

quote:
A subplot should enhance the emotional impact of the main story for the reader. If it doesn't, then it's at best a missed opportunity. How can a subplot do this? By engaging primal emotions like love or fear or hate; or using irony to emphasize features of the main storyline.


Everything in a story should serve the story, or the voice of the story, or both. This, I suppose, is the sum-up of what I'm trying to say. I don't really see the point in defining, universally, what a sub-plot (or anything else) is and what it should or shouldn't do, because that's all decided by each individual story and its nature and voice.


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MattLeo
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Merlion-Emrys -- I want to make clear I'm not trying to foist some normative system off on people. What I'm trying to do is to open people's minds to the power of writing about love, and the full scope of what "love" can mean in a story.

This topic originally came up in the context of a question I had about the techniques for writing a scene so that it would be romantic. The immediate response I got was that romance was overdone, and people found it annoying and pretty much contemptible that writers wrote about it at all.

Since the original post was about *technique*, I thought there ought to be a separate thread discussing whether treating the topic of love has any value at all.

So I decided to write about what love (in its broadest sense encompassing affection, friendship and agape, as well as eros) can do for a story. Of course I hardly expect people to even consider changing the kinds of plots they're writing, so I thought it would be most useful to focus on how love (again in its myriad non-yucky forms) could be worked into a sublot in a way that adds to the stories they're already writing, but isn't full of icky smooching and groping.

The immediate response I get amounts to this: subplots are bad, and in any case nobody can agree on what a subplot is, so I haven't defined my terms.

Well, now I'm stuck. My original program of putting a new possibility on the table is not going anywhere until I first put that ontological framework on the table (but notice how I shrewdly qualified that framework as being "for purposes of this discussion" ... ha ha! You won't catch me blundering into that trap!). Oh, yes; I'll still have to address the normative position that subplots are bad otherwise there'd be no point in a the tedious work of defining my terms.

No problem. Fortunately I am more than foolhardy enough to stake the flag of my normative opinion in the shifting sands of this conversation, so I'll simply take the contrary position: in a story of sufficient scale, subplots are a useful technique. Note my careful use of logical quantifiers: the negation of "subplots are bad" is "some subplots are good", not "all subplots are good" (you won't catch me with that one, either!).

In any case clearly some subplots are just no good at all -- not that I expect we'll ever all agree on which ones those are. But even so, I've already gone through the tedious exercise of defining what I mean by a "subplot". I might as well finish the job by stating my position on them which, while shockingly arrogant, might at least be useful for moving people toward my original idea that love is a human experience which can enrich their writing. And here is that shocking and radical position:

quote:
A subplot (as defined by above) which strengthens the thesis (if you have one of those) or emotional catharsis (if you're attempting it) of your main plot (it's a safe bet you have one of those but if you don't feel free to ignore this) is clearly valuable to a writer.

Oh, and now I expect I'll have to stipulate "valuable to a writer who wants readers to be intellectually inspired or emotionally moved by his main plot," too.

Geez, this is a tough crowd!

[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited August 31, 2011).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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Ahhh now I understand. I didn't realize this was so strongly a continuation of another discussion, but I think it's all pretty clear to me now. It reminds me a bit of an experience I had a while back. I've been known to write stories where the protaganist is motivated by things like curiosity or wanderlust, which are, apparently like romance, motivations looked down on by many.


I deeply sympathize with the impulse to try, but if someone thinks romance is overdone, or always "badly" done I doubt there is much hope of changing their mind, no matter how well you explain and diagram what it can add to a story.


As far as the heart of the matter, the story you're working on that you mention in the other thread...my two coppers is this. You're worrying to much about what works for others. Just do whatever works for you. Write it how you want it to/think it should be. Let the characters tell you how they want to proceed. You're never going to please everyone, so worry first, and mostly foremost, with pleasing yourself.


I did realize something interesting though. I've always said that romance and related topics don't come up much in my stories...but I realized that the last two short stories I've written are largely love stories. The last one in particular does involve, in some ways, a good deal of what you speak of...there are various things keeping the two apart and theres a moment where their feelings are finally realized. It's certainly an interesting thing to discuss and not an area I've given huge thought too till recently.


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mythique890
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I learn so much from the discussions on these forums!

I find that in my own writing, I use subplots to underscore the actions of my MC's, sort of like KDW mentioned (mirrors and parallels). Mostly, though, I like getting to know the secondary characters better (I don't claim that's a good thing, it's just what I do).


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Natej11
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Completely off-topic, but did anyone else read the name of this topic as "The birds and the BS?"

Seriously though, I think a subplot is an excellent opportunity to provide a contrast to the main love story. It can show the sadness of love never found, or of love faded, to make the happiness and newness of the love seem all the more poignant.

In Les Miserables there's the sort of half-glimpsed love story between Marius and Eponine, who secretly loved him even though he was barely aware of her existence. It served to lead to several tragic moments, as well as making the final happiness all the more touching.


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