For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series. Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series. I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.
In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand! It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series. Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?). It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters. It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe. My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.
You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen. How did they do it? I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it). I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor. They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together. They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence. Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid. It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.
Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it. When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing. Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.
(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply. The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot. Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War. Everything else is supporting that in some way. Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot. In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)
I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book. I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang. Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe. Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market. They had a foundation in place. I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once. I still have to put in the work on the first one.
“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.
I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world). It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world. It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA. I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests. It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)! Excellent! Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy. But what now? You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants? O….kayyy….I’ve got time. Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?! Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh! Fantastic! …Wait, what was I doing again? Main quest? What main quest?
I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal. The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume. We can include so much that we lose focus. The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it. There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track. We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there. But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target. If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it. Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story. For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.
We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours). Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track. Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.
Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins. Just, not yet. I haven’t earned it yet. On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions. First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold. The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!). Second, does it support the main story? It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story. Third, why should the reader care? You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts). Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!
I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world. It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World. Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents. She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there. The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World. However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense. The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.
That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.
You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.