Vacation. What image does that word conjure in your mind? A sun-drenched beach, an exotic foreign city, or a wilderness retreat?
Vacations are highly recommended to give us a break from our ordinary routine. Depending on your choice, they may refresh, recharge, or relax. We step out of our everyday life and examine our priorities, adjust our perspectives, and experience new places. No matter how you define a vacation, in the end it is only a temporary get-away from the everyday. As Yoda might say, return to regular life we must.
I imagine our vacations must be like the subplots in our life stories. What is a subplot? According to Jami Gold’s post, “By definition, subplots are plots that support the main plot in some way.” (See her article here.) Subplots exist to enrich the primary story line. They might add contrast, illumination, alternative scenarios, or just plain comic relief. However, subplots are subordinate to the main plot.
In the same manner, vacations only represent a small percentage of our lifetimes. They don’t pay the rent, clean the house, or perform the mundane activities that make up our usual routines. Yet, they can enrich our lives and broaden our experiences.
I recently returned from a cruise to Alaska. (A true bucket list vacation!) I’ll share more after I sort and label the photos. (WARNING-there are a LOT of photos. Don’t hold your breath.)
I enjoyed the trip, but some landings are bumpier than others. Evidently, I spent more time packing than fleshing out my post-vacation writing strategy. I intended to prepare this post before I left. (SPOILER: I didn’t.) I did leave myself some surprisingly legible yet cryptic notes, extremely cryptic.
Subplots. Three Billboards. Examples.
Evidently, before I left on my adventure, I was thinking about subplots. This may have been triggered by reading the book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, by Shawn Coyne. (See my review of this excellent resource here.) Consider that the best interpretation available for my current choice of topic.
Jami Gold says a good subplot should have a purpose that relates to the overall story. (Isn’t that the reason we send our kids to summer camp, tour a museum, or visit Mount Rushmore?)
Readers who can see at least hints of how the subplots or tangents are related to the main story line will be left with the impression of a stronger story. Subplots and tangents that have a point give readers a sense that a story is tightly plotted and that everything follows a story’s internal logic.
One side effect of my studies of story theory is a tendency to analyze books and movies. (Not always one of my most endearing traits!) One of my reappearing ideas for a post (see more about where my ideas come from here) has been the subplots in the 2017 Academy Award nominated movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If you haven’t seen it, here is the promotional summary.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Academy Award winner Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated. Written by Fox Searchlight Pictures
The story focuses on a murder, but not on solving the murder. Rather it explores how the violent death affects impacts the people of Ebbing, including an angry mother, a dying police chief, a grieving brother, and a frustrated police officer.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, you may not want to read the next two paragraphs.
The web of characters provides a series of subplots, but the one that sticks in my mind is Chief Willoughby’s story. While Mildred deals with the sudden and unexpected loss of her daughter, the Chief must prepare for the inevitable conclusion of his battle with cancer. He leaves final notes, spends a last memory making day with his family, and kisses his wife goodbye. He even plays a joke on Mildred by making a posthumous payment on the billboards.
Both Mildred and Willoughby deal with unwanted loss, but the juxtaposition of the situations adds layers of emotion and depth to the plot. Could Willoughby’s story be removed? Yes, but the story wouldn’t resonate as much without it.
Like an over-scheduled vacation, there is a danger in adding TOO many subplots. Shawn Coyne advises writers not to concentrate on adding them to a first draft. He says the best ones emerge out of the mysterious workings of the subconscious and are better recognized and refined during editing. (See his article here.)
Jami Gold says if we can remove a subplot without changing the main story, it probably doesn’t belong.
So, as long as a scene serves a story purpose, we can feel confident that it belongs as part of our story. And hopefully, with this benchmark, we’ll know whether a scene truly is adding layers of character development or is just going off on an unrelated tangent. *smile*
My vacation is over…sigh…but the memories shine. I saw glaciers, whales, and totem poles. My life has been enhanced by sailing away from my ordinary world. I hope I will skillfully weave similarly enriching subplots into my stories. Do you have a favorite subplot? Share in the comments.